The White House doubled down today to bat back the idea that dithering at the highest levels delayed an ultimately unsuccessful military operation to rescue American al Qaeda hostage Luke Somers in Yemen last week.
“There are still some significant limits to what I can say about what is still a classified operation, but I would reject in the strongest possible terms that there was any delay at the White House in approving his mission,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
An administration official told ABC News Thursday that the Pentagon had received a concept of operations, or “conop,” from the military’s highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) midday Friday and sent it on to the White House that night – at the request of Obama aides there, one senior official said.
A team of White House advisors went over the plan for the next two days, presenting it to the President Sunday, who approved it that day, the official said.
The special operation, undertaken by the Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six and involving Yemeni forces, was launched late Monday, officials said. The U.S.-led forces rescued several hostages, but Somers, their key objective, had apparently been moved earlier.
A defense official said it was possible Somers had been moved as early as Friday, the same day the White House first saw the proposed plan.
As for the two days the White House advisors had it before presenting it to the President, Earnest said the plan was going through a “rigorous” interagency process.
“There was careful consideration of the risk this operation would pose for our men and women,” Earnest said. “There was careful consideration of intelligence. There was careful consideration of the diplomatic equities involved. There are important questions raised when an operation like this takes place in a foreign country. There are important diplomatic questions that are raised when there is the potential that some of those who may be rescued are of a different nationality, citizens of another country. There are important equities raised when it comes to either killing or even capturing extremists.”
“So thinking through all those things is something that was important and that’s consistent with the way the process worked in previous administrations, and it’s not something that involves only White House personnel,” he added.
Two counter-terrorism officials with knowledge of the raid previously told ABC News that the approval process was perceived by some of those involved as having taken too long while the window for rescue was open.
Somers was seen late Wednesday in a hostage video in which a militant from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) says the U.S. government has three days to comply with the group’s demands – unspecified in the video – before Somers is killed.