A media firestorm has developed around the death of one U.S. serviceman who was killed over the weekend by al Qaeda radicals in a raid on Yemen — the first casualty on President Donald Trump's watch.
The raid, which also resulted in three wounded U.S. service members and 14 dead militants, was part of a hunt for al Qaeda leader Qassim al-Rimi, according to Yemini rebel forces. In a statement to The Washington Post, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees operations in the Middle East, said a U.S. aircraft went down in a "hard landing" near where the operation took place and was intentionally destroyed.
In its assessment of the operation, which led to at least 30 civilian deaths, CENTCOM told Reuters that the operation was approved without evidence, ground support or adequate backup operations.
It seems undisputed at this point that Trump signed off on the raid, though White House press secretary Sean Spicer claimed the operation was planned by former President Barack Obama's administration, according to the Post:
[Spicer] said that the plan for the operation was first submitted by U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations across the Middle East, to the Defense Department on Nov. 7, one day before the presidential election. A plan was approved by the Pentagon on Dec. 19 and turned over to the White House. Obama administration officials approved a plan for an operation during an interagency meeting Jan. 6, two weeks before President Trump’s inauguration, and decided it would be best to carry it out in the dark of a “moonless night,” Spicer said. That meant waiting until after Trump took office.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis reviewed the plan on Jan. 24, the Post reported, and Trump was briefed on the matter by retired Gen. Michael Flynn, his national security adviser, the next day. The president then met with Mattis and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and signed off on the operation one day later.
But former Obama staffers didn't remember it the same way, taking issue with Spicer's claim that the operation was first organized by the ex-commander in chief. In fact, Colin Kahl, who was a security official in the Obama White House, called Spicer's story "B.S."
"I was there. ... No specific raid was discussed. ... The 'moonless night' thing is B.S.," he told the Wall Street Journal, adding that the White House never signed off on that specific mission.
While the operation had been proposed, it was never green-lighted. Kahl said Obama felt going the mission would mark a "significant escalation" in Yemen and should be left to the next administration to decide.
"Obama ... believed this represented a significant escalation of U.S. involvement in Yemen, and therefore ... thought the next administration should take a careful look and run a careful process," he told the WSJ.
War broke out in the region in 2014, when Shiite Houthi rebels captured the capital city of Sanaa. Since then, a Saudi-led military coalition has been working with the Yemeni government to reclaim the territory from radicals.
An al Qaeda official confirmed the killings, according to Politico, describing the attack as a "massacre." He also said the raid killed women and children, but gave no evidence to support the claim.
CENTOM said it "concluded regrettably that civilian non-combatants were likely killed," adding that its assessment of the operation "seeks to determine if there were any still-undetected civilian casualties in the ferocious firefight."