Trump’s First Counterterrorism Operations and the Prior Interagency Review Process

When a U.S. service member or unanticipated civilian dies in a U.S. military operation, hard questions need to be asked about what happened and how to prevent such tragedies in the future.  The U.S. military is no doubt grappling with these questions, as they always do after these operations, following this weekend’s counterterrorism raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a U.S. service member and possibly some civilian casualties.  But in the context of this weekend’s news that President Trump has reorganized his National Security Council process to demote senior military and intelligence officials from some decision making processes while promoting his senior political strategist, other accounts that Trump’s team has not coordinated major policy decisions with the relevant agencies, and amid continuing criticism of how the Obama Administration ran its NSC processes, questions will also arise as to what process should go into approving these operations.

When interviewing candidates for my team at the National Security Council (NSC) staff, we liked to present a case study.  Imagine that the Secretary of Defense is seeking the President’s approval for a hostage rescue or terrorist capture mission overseas; what information and analysis would you want the National Security Advisor to provide to the President, and how would you structure a prompt but thorough policy process to ensure that the President is informed by the relevant experts in his administration?  The case study spoke to the core of the NSC staff’s work – making sure that the President has the information he needs and hears from all of the relevant voices on his national security team before he has to make the solemn decision about whether to send the military into harm’s way.

This weekend’s counterterrorism raid in Yemen offers a reminder of why such review processes are so important.

Let’s recount what we know (largely thanks to New York Times reporting).  The operation was reportedly designed to allow the U.S. military to seize media and sensitive al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) materials present at the target site that would help build our intelligence picture on al-Qa’ida’s most dangerous affiliate.  It was reportedly conducted against a location associated with the Dhahab family, members of which have longstanding links to AQAP, in the restive Bayda region of central Yemen, where AQAP has deep ties.  A firefight ensued at the objective and at the conclusion of the operation, the Department of Defense reports that 14 enemy combatants were killed.  A U.S. special operator was also tragically killed in the mission, the first combat death of President Trump’s Administration.  Three more U.S. service members were injured when their aircraft made a hard landing nearby.  DOD initially stated that no civilians were killed but later revised their statement to say that they were examining claims that women and children were among the Yemenis who died in the operation.  Local Yemeni officials tell the Times that 15 or more civilians were killed.  Some reports contend that the young daughter of Anwar al-Aulaqi, the American citizen AQAP leader killed by the U.S. Government in a targeted strike, was killed in the operation.

Based on what we know from press reporting, it appears that the operation underwent significant review by President Obama’s senior national security team and the Trump Administration would have had access to that information before President Trump decided to order the mission.  Nonetheless, the complexities of such an operation and the currently evolving picture about its results, only hammers home why thorough pre-operational review by relevant officials up to and including the President is so important.

When proposals to conduct these missions are received, the NSC staff launches into a frenzy of activity designed to provide the President with expert views beyond what the Pentagon can provide to inform his decisionmaking.  DOD typically provides a comprehensive assessment of the value of the target and the risks to U.S. forces involved in the operation, but there are a whole slew of questions to which the answers come from outside of DOD.  What is the international legal basis for conducting this operation?  Has the host nation consented?  What does consent look like in Yemen, a country ruled by a faction that unlawfully took power while the legitimate government sits in exile?  We would have wanted to ensure the President heard the State Department’s views on the potential diplomatic reverberations of this operation – both in Yemen and region – and particularly how those considerations might change if any civilians are harmed in the operation.  State might have also opined on how this operation would affect or be conflated with the ongoing Saudi and Emirati-led campaign against the Houthi government in Yemen.  We would have wanted other intelligence agencies to review the case and provide an independent assessment of the value of the target and whether taking this action would harm other intelligence efforts.  We would have looked to DOD for guidance on whether detainees were likely to be taken off the target and then to the Justice Department, State, and others to consider the disposition options for them.  And before the President reviewed the operation, we would want reassurance that all of the legislative and public affairs aspects of this operation were wired tight.  What would DOD, State, the White House, and others say if news of the operation leaked before execution, thereby potentially endangering the lives of the operators?  What would we tell the public if the operation resulted in the death of U.S. service members, if civilians were harmed, or if a major AQAP figure were killed in the operation?  When would we tell Congress about the operation, who would be informed, and who would be briefed in detail following the operation?

And even when all of these questions are carefully considered, these are inherently risky operations and tragic events occur.  Our special operators expertly manage risk but can never control it.

But the President deserves to have the hard questions answered to the best of his national security team’s ability before he fulfills his unenviable duty of grappling with the considerations of putting U.S. forces in harm’s way.  In the Obama White House, we would have done this through a rapid convening of senior officials from the relevant departments and agencies to work through these kinds of questions.  And although we could most often run that process in a few hours’ time, it is this type of thorough gathering of information so that the President can make a sound decision that has been unduly derided by some of Obama’s critics as allegedly resulting in missed opportunities to remove terrorists from the battlefield and recover American hostages.

Certainly, more work can always be done to streamline that review process.  Or the President could instruct his Secretary of Defense to coordinate answers to these questions before bringing anything to the White House.  If the Trump Administration plans to do these types of operations on a more frequent basis, mechanisms can be put in place so that operations can be delegated and executed within certain bounds without running through all of these questions each time.  But as the Administration works its way through how its NSC will function, which voices should be at the table, and who the President needs to hear from before making decisions, the operation in Yemen should be a reminder that careful process and review of complicated issues should be a central feature of that system.

Image: American special operations forces on a nighttime training mission, via US Dept. of Defense. 

About the Author(s)

Luke Hartig

Fellow - International Security Program at New America, Executive Director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative, Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, Former Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense Follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).