The first major military operation under Donald Trump’s regime was a disaster: A Navy SEAL was killed during a mission that missed its target and killed civilians, and officials now admit the mission yielded no new intelligence
Donald Trump and his team have insisted that a botched Navy SEAL raid in Yemen yielded significant intelligence which will help to prevent future terrorist attacks, and have made this claim as part of a campaign to deflect calls for an independent investigation into what went wrong.
But senior officials who have seen inside information say that no significant intelligence was obtained in the fateful mission, nor would it help to prevent future attacks.
Bill Owens, the father of Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens, the Navy SEAL killed during the raid, has called out out the Trump administration for this behavior: "Don’t hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation," adding, "I want an investigation. … The government owes my son an investigation."
Owens expressed his concerns about how Trump decided to give the go order for the mission that killed his child:
Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into his administration? Why? For two years prior, there were no boots on the ground in Yemen — everything was missiles and drones — because there was not a target worth one American life. Now, all of a sudden we had to make this grand display?’
Owens also told the military he did not want to meet with Trump as his son’s body arrived at Dover Air Force Base.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to see him,’’ Owens recalled telling the chaplain who informed him that Trump was on his way from Washington. “I told them I don’t want to meet the President.”
The elder Owens is a military veteran, and he said he was shaken by Trump’s repeated attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of slain Army Captain Humayun Khan during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Appearing in comfortable territory on the extremely pro-Trump Fox & Friends (where Trump got his start in opining on politics and pushing conspiracy theories), Trump passed the buck on the Yemen raid that took the life of Officer Owens while repeating the falsehood that "tremendous amounts of information" were obtained.
DOOCY: His father has said that he didn't want to talk to you. Your reaction to that?
TRUMP: Well, this was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something that was, you know, just, they wanted to do. And they came to see me. They explained what they wanted to do, the generals — who were very respected, my generals are the most respected that we have had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan. And I was at the airport when the casket came in, the body came in. And it was a very sad — with the family, and it's a great family. Incredible wife and children. I met most of the family. And I can understand people saying that. I'd feel — I'd feel, what's worse? There is nothing worse. There is nothing worse. But again, this was something that they were looking at for a long time doing. And according to General Mattis it was a very successful mission. They got tremendous amounts of information.
The repeated use of "they" to cast blame on the military instead of owning up to a decision he made the final call on is a break from recent presidential leadership. In 2015, in the aftermath of a raid he authorized in which two hostages were killed, President Obama firmly stated, "As president and commander-in-chief I take full responsibility for all counterterrorism operations."
In this episode, Trump returns to a familiar pattern we have seen in his time as a political figure. If something goes awry on his command, it is the failure of an aide or someone else in his orbit. President Harry Truman famously put a sign on his desk saying "the buck stops here," but just a little over a month in, Trump is clearly incapable of and uninterested in owning that historical presidential responsibility.
But it was Trump who authorized the military operation in Yemen — not after a briefing in the White House Situation Room, where traditionally such weighty decisions are done, but rather while eating dinner. Participants in the decision included his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his white nationalist right-hand man, Steve Bannon.
The mission quickly went off track as U.S. forces faced more opposition than expected, and soon Owens was dead, along with 25 civilians (including an 8-year-old girl). Six other service members were also wounded. At the time, Trump’s Twitter account was pushing out a promotional message about an upcoming interview.
Things went so badly that the Yemeni government has put severe restrictions on the ability of the U.S. military to conduct counterterrorism raids from their soil, a setback in the ongoing war on terrorism. And the real target of the raid, reportedly Qassim al-Rimi, head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, survived and later released audio taunting Trump, citing fallout from Trump’s decision.
The plans for the raid had indeed first surfaced during the Obama administration, but unlike Trump, President Obama did not authorize the action because conditions were too risky. Colin Kahl, a national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden, said, "Obama made no decisions on this before leaving office, believing it represented escalation of U.S. involvement in Yemen."
Retired Admiral James Stavridis, a former NATO commander discussed Trump's decision making with NBC and noted, "Certainly the Obama administration, particularly by the end of its eight-year run, was very cautious in moving forward with any kind of military activity. A new administration I think naturally is going to be spring-loaded to move out and demonstrate something."
As the Trump White House began to really spin the story, Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that the operation had been a "huge success," and declared, "I think anyone who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and a disservice to the life of Chief Owens." But Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), among others, have publicly pushed back, calling the raid a "failure."
It is Trump and his White House team who owe an apology to the family of the slain SEAL. If the administration wants to take credit for a supposedly "successful mission," they also need to accept responsibility for the casualties it incurred.