Current, Former Officials Spar Over Approval of Special Ops Raid in Yemen

One American and local civilians were killed in the operation.

ByABC News
February 3, 2017, 7:05 PM

— -- A war of words broke out late Thursday between former Obama administration senior officials, the military and the Trump White House over who approved what, when and how a violent special operations raid in Yemen last weekend was planned, proposed and approved.

Counterterrorism officials privy to the details of the raid's planning told ABC News the shadowy truth lies in between the competing claims of the Democratic and Republican administrations, which were each involved.

The operation was planned for months and forces were positioned in waters off Yemen by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command days before Trump was sworn in as the 45th president on Jan. 20, in anticipation of a quick approval by his White House for launching it on a moonless night a week later.

"They had the force staged before the Inauguration," a currently-serving counterterrorism official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters, told ABC News.

The goal of the mission was to find and neutralize top al-Qaeda leaders and retrieve intelligence on their future plans. At issue was the high price paid for the operation: one American commando killed, several critically wounded, an expensive aircraft lost, and civilian women and children killed in crossfire.

The Trump team -- stung by accusations on social media of recklessly plunging American forces into the mountains of Yemen -- claimed that the planning overlapped the two administrations exchanging the keys of power on Jan. 20.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Thursday that the special operations plan to launch the Navy's most elite operators, SEAL Team Six, was supported by Obama's NSC on Jan. 6 after being devised in early November and first going through an approval process within the Defense Department.

But a former Obama NSC official tweeted that Spicer's tick-tock of events was "misleading."

"The specific operation in question was never presented to or considered by the Obama Admin for approval," former NSC spokesperson Ned Price tweeted.

Two other officials who left the government when Obama left office quickly chimed in.

Colin Kahl, who served as former Vice President Biden's national security adviser, tweeted it was "false" that officials participating in the Jan. 6 meeting at the NSC recommended the plan proceed ahead.

"I was in meeting. No rec.," he tweeted.

"I have no doubt DoD [Department of Defense] had plans, & discussed internally, but no specific CONOP/raid [military "concept of operations"] briefed or approved. I was in the room," Kahl continued in a series of tweets, which rocketed through Twitter's echo chamber.

Kahl insisted that Obama did not want to escalate the U.S. military's operations in Yemen in the waning days of his presidency, stating flatly that, "No recommendation was made other than a recommendation to provide the next Administration with the necessary information."

"Detailed analysis (weighing concerns) prepared for incoming [Trump] team, but no decisions by Obama," agreed former NSC Yemen director Eric Pelofsky in a tweet.

But a current counterterrorism official familiar with the stages of operational planning said the NSC was informed of the plan for Yemen, including options for the specific operation in al-Bayda province, and they chose not to green-light it.

"I think there is a bit of truth that they wanted to hand it off to the next administration," the official told ABC News.

But days before Trump took office, the commander of SEAL Team Six got word that incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn and Secretary of Defense-designate James Mattis had been briefed and were supportive, the official said. The SEALs and various naval vessels, drones and aircraft were positioned in the region to be ready to launch Jan. 28, a week after Trump was sworn in.

"So the force stayed positioned near Yemen," the counterterrorism official said, "anticipating the Mattis and President Trump approvals."

Asked to respond, Kahl in an email said what was discussed within the NSC "was a package of enhancements and broader DoD authorities to take direct action of this general type."

"Even in this regard, no recommendation was made beyond passing the info to the incoming [Trump] team. And because Obama noted that this would be a big escalation of our troops' direct involvement, he thought it was appropriate for Trump to make the decision after getting all the facts and running a careful process," Kahl said in the email to ABC News.

Kahl added it is his belief that there was no deliberative process by the Trump team, despite Spicer's insistence that there was.

The Pentagon has since acknowledged the death of one SEAL, William "Ryan" Owens, and civilians killed, including children.

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