Over the past five days, accounts of Sunday’s special operations raid in Yemen have continued to evolve to a point where questions are now being raised as to the process that went into its planning and approval. This dialogue will no doubt continue, and certainly much should still be clarified, but rather than re-litigate what happened, there is now an opportunity to define the new Administration’s framework for reviewing and approving these operations. As a civil servant in the Obama Pentagon and White House, I spent several years helping develop and refine the frameworks for counterterrorism operations. The underlying factors these frameworks consider – questions about risk, value of the target, geopolitical implications – will not go away in the Trump Administration. If anything, they may become more acute in some of the complicated places where we are operating.
I wrote about the raid on Monday and argued that this operation, the first complex counterterrorism mission of the Trump Administration, should serve as a reminder of the importance of considered interagency review of operations. At that time, news reporting suggested that the operation had been subjected to a rigorous review at the end of the Obama Administration and simply left to President Trump to make the final, unenviable decision about whether to send troops into harm’s way.
By Thursday, the story had become much more complicated, with press reports stating that President Trump ordered the operation during a dinner meeting with Secretary Mattis, General Dunford, Mike Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Steve Bannon. The accounts raised major questions about the extent to which the President considered views from agencies other than DOD in approving the operation. And, as my colleague Peter Bergen has noted, Kushner and Bannon, who have no relevant expertise working on special operations and arguably no “need to know” about highly sensitive pre-operational discussions, were present at the meeting. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer further commented on the meeting from the podium, stating that the operation had been reviewed by senior officials in the Obama Administration and recommended for approval prior to Trump taking office. Spicer also said that CIA Director Mike Pompeo had been present at the dinner, a detail that was absent from accounts by Bergen, the New York Times’ Eric Schmitt, and Slate’s Fred Kaplan. Spicer also noted that a Deputies Committee had taken place the day after the dinner, though he noted that this meeting was not necessary because the operation had already been approved.
Shortly after the Spicer press conference, former NSC spokesperson Ned Price and Colin Kahl, former National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden, strenuously objected to Spicer’s account, stating that the Obama national security team had not provided a recommendation on whether to execute the operation. Kahl further contended that Deputies had never even reviewed a specific concept of operations for this raid – in which DOD would have outlined how this particular operation would take place and assessed various types of risk – but rather a more general request for authorities to undertake these types of operations. Kahl says that President Obama understood this was a “big piece of business” and deferred to the next Administration to run their own process on this proposal. An anonymous Defense official, speaking to the Post’s Don Lamothe, disputed Kahl’s account, insisting that, “The raid had been planned several months and was given full consideration by the previous administration.”
Meanwhile, reporting from Reuters, sourced to anonymous officials, questioned the operational preparations for the raid and whether enough had been done to prevent the loss of U.S. and innocent Yemeni life. Accounts of civilian casualties remained unclear, with the Pentagon acknowledging that reports were probably correct, continued reporting that Anwar al-Awlaki’s daughter was among the dead, and the human rights group Reprieve (generally more extreme than other groups in its assessments) claiming that 23 civilians had been killed in the operation.
This story will no doubt continue to evolve over the coming days, but it is worth taking stock now of the lessons that are emerging from this operation and the deliberative process leading up to its approval.
First, let’s just agree that second guessing operational decisions based on reporting attributed to anonymous sources is almost always inadvisable. Meticulously planned and rehearsed operations fail for any number of reasons, and in my experience advising policymakers on many similar operations, I have never seen a report from an anonymous source that offers a thorough and accurate accounting of a specific operation. Further, it is insulting to suggest that Secretary Mattis, General Dunford, and General Flynn, all of whom have extensive combat experience, would have breezily recommended a high risk operation to the President. The military will work through the details of what went wrong and what ought to be done in response, and we should let that process play out.
All that said, the process by which this operation was approved is still unclear, and approving major military operations over dinner, rather than following a formal senior level meeting, is highly unusual. Clarification of how views were obtained from a range of departments and agencies and conveyed to the President would give us a better idea of how he might have been advised on the operation, regardless of what specific meetings might have taken plan. Most important would be the State Department and Intelligence Community were thoroughly involved in advising the President on the operation. The reported presence of Mike Pompeo at the dinner where the operation was approved is a reassuring sign that the Intelligence Community advised the President on the intelligence value of the target. But with Pompeo in the job such a short time, it is worth asking whether top career officials also advised Pompeo on the operation and whether Pompeo participated in the discussion on the proposed raid. With Rex Tillerson not yet confirmed at that time, it is perhaps unsurprising that the State Department was not represented at the dinner, but did acting Secretary of State Tom Shannon provide views on the operation? Did Mike Flynn advise the President on State’s views, consistent with his duty to coordinate the President’s national security team? And why did a Deputies Committee take place the day after the dinner, rather than in advance of it, so that the considered views of career officials from the relevant departments and agencies could be presented to the Trump national security team for review prior to presenting the operation to the President? The answer might be that the Trump team simply relied on the analysis conducted by the Obama team and presented the mission to President Trump; but then why hold a Deputies Committee meeting at all?
These questions about prior review were dismissed by former Congressman Mike Rogers and retired General Mark Hertling as “silly” or worse. They’re not. They’re about making sure the government has prepared for all possible contingencies and that the President has the full range of information he needs to make a considered decision. For example, for Yemen trackers in the U.S. government, the fact that this operation was to take place in al-Bayda would have been notable. The governorate in central Yemen is a longstanding AQAP safe haven, where the group has exploited deep connections to key tribal powerbrokers to sustain its presence and effectively thwart Yemeni government action. Press accounts over the past several years have documented significant unrest among the local population in al-Bayda following U.S. counterterrorism strikes, particularly those that are alleged to have caused civilian casualties. In conducting ground raids against terrorist compounds, firefights often break out, and the potential for civilian casualties, or at lest allegations of them, is always present. In this context, an interagency process would likely work through contingency press points and diplomatic approach should the operation result in any civilian casualties. We don’t know if that planning took place, but we do know that Yemeni government officials have spoken out forcefully against the operation, with Foreign Minister Abdul Malik Al Mekhlafi referring to the deaths as “extrajudicial killings.” That’s the very type of reaction that an informed and engaged State Department would seek to prevent.
Beyond the local fallout in Bayda, thorough planning would also be necessary to consider the dynamics of taking bolder military action in Yemen, amid a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Talking points might have been prepared to publicly and privately describe the operation, particularly if things went wrong, in the context of the ongoing Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen that has wreaked havoc on Yemen and claimed the lives of an estimated 10,000-plus civilians. The fact that U.S. forces partnered with the Emirati military only heightens this concern.
At its best, the NSC process is about drawing out such a comprehensive range of considerations, not second guessing military planning. If such a process did not take place, then the President almost certainly did not have the appropriate information he needed to make his decision.
Regardless of what information President Trump received on this raid, the operation is bound to raise questions about what process such operations should undergo going forward. Reports already suggest that the Administration is considering options for a greater tempo of operations like this one and looking to streamline approval processes for counterterrorism operations. Indeed, one way to read Spicer’s remarks today might be as a subtle rebuke of the Obama process, which supposedly took months to run through and ultimately could not prevent the tragic mishaps that sometimes occur in combat. It would be unfortunate if that is the lesson the Trump team takes away.
The point of interagency process should not be to unnecessarily slow things down or micromanage operations. It is to ensure that senior officials beyond the Pentagon have an opportunity to review the operation and its risks, offer independent assessments of the potential gains, assess the political effects, and consider planning for contingencies such as the deaths of U.S. service members or Yemeni civilians. Simply put, there are vital questions that DOD cannot, and generally does not want to, answer on its own.
The Obama Administration has been criticized (unfairly, in my mind, though I admit my own bias) for an allegedly slow process for reviewing these operations. But it is entirely appropriate to have a debate at the dawn of a new administration about the approval levels for various types of operations. A case might be made for greater delegation of authority to the Secretary of Defense to review and approve these operations. But if that’s the case, the White House and Secretary Mattis would do well to learn from Secretary Robert Gates, who insisted that sufficiently senior representatives from State, the Intelligence Community, and other relevant agencies provide their views on risky operations prior to Gates’ consideration of a given proposal. A case might also be made for standing delegation of authority to lower level operational commanders to approve operations falling within certain parameters. But here, too, the Administration would be well advised to create a framework for such operations that considers the non-military effects of military activities and prepares for various contingencies that could arise in the process.
I fear that some will read this debate as just a case of Obama officials lashing out at the new team. That is not the case. The new team should support President Trump however he prefers. But they would also be wise to use this first major counterterrorism operation of his presidency to develop a process that ensures he has all the information and advice he needs to make the hard decisions.