White House press secretary Sean Spicer raised eyebrows Wednesday when he argued that anyone questioning the success of a controversial U.S. military raid in Yemen last month was dishonoring Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, the Navy SEAL who died in the operation.
Amid reports about a lack of adequate intelligence and sufficient ground support, the White House has faced mounting pressure to justify its authorization for the Jan. 29 operation against suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen’s al Bayda province. The raid claimed the lives of Owens and several civilians, including women and children. Three other Americans were wounded, and a U.S. aircraft was lost.
The surprise attack, the first counterterrorism operation President Donald Trump authorized since taking office, was supposed to gather intelligence about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Despite the heavy loss of life, the White House has insisted that the raid was “highly successful.” Spicer doubled down on that assessment during Wednesday’s White House press briefing, suggesting that whoever was saying otherwise was not only wrong, but also doing a disservice to Owens.
“Anyone who would suggest otherwise doesn’t fully appreciate how successful that mission was,” Spicer said in response to a question from NBC’s Kristen Welker. “Anyone who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology to the life and service of Chief Owens.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, had told reporters on Tuesday after receiving a briefing on the operation that he would not call the raid a success.
McCain responded to Spicer’s comments on Wednesday by relaying a story from his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. The senator told NBC News: “Many years ago, when I was imprisoned in North Vietnam, there was an attempt to rescue the POWs. Unfortunately the prison had been evacuated but the brave men who took ― risked their lived in an effort to rescue us prisoners of war were genuine American heroes. Because the mission failed did not in any way diminish their courage and willingness to help their fellow Americans who were held captive. Mr. Spicer should know that story.”
The U.S. military says it is still investigating whether “there were any still-undetected civilian casualties in the ferocious firefight.” Meanwhile, the administration has revealed few details about the crucial intelligence it says was gathered during the operation.
On Friday, the U.S. military took down a video it said had been an example of the assets captured during the raid, upon realizing the video had been filmed in 2007. A Pentagon spokesperson later said that while the video was indeed several years old, it had been found during last month’s raid.
Yemen is among the seven Muslim-majority nations targeted by Trump’s immigration and travel bans, which are now blocked in federal court. Swathes of the Yemen’s south are held by AQAP, al Qaeda’s affiliate there. Other parts of the country, including the capital Sanaa, are held by Shiite Houthi rebels.
The deaths of several women and children in the operation has sparked outrage in Yemen. Among the dead is the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al Awlaki, the preacher and U.S. citizen who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011. Yemeni officials said on Wednesday they had expressed concern about the January operation to the Trump administration. However, they denied reports of having revoked permission for future special operations ground missions.
“We have not withdrawn our permission for the United States to carry out special operations ground missions. However, we made clear our reservations about the last operation,” a senior Yemeni official told Reuters.
Spicer said during the press briefing Wednesday that the White House had been in touch with Yemeni officials.
“They understand the fight and commitment that we both share,” Spicer said.