The first military operation President Trump authorized, a rare and risky raid in Yemen on Jan. 28, resulted in the deaths of a Navy SEAL and as many as 29 civilians. That led to reasonable questions from members of Congress, including Republicans, who wanted to know what went wrong and whether there were lessons to be learned.
The Trump administration tried to shut down those inquiries, calling them an affront to the legacy of the fallen service member, Chief Petty Officer William Owens.
Chief Owens’s father begs to differ. Bill Owens told the Miami Herald in an interview published Sunday that he has several lingering questions about the mission during which his son, known as Ryan, was killed. “Don’t hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation,” he said. “The government owes my son an investigation.”
The Pentagon routinely conducts investigations into the deaths of service members, the destruction of military equipment in battle and credible reports of civilian casualties. Such inquiries are now underway regarding the Yemen mission, which the Pentagon says was carried out primarily to gather intelligence on the branch of Al-Qaida in that country.
But there are broader questions those reviews are unlikely to address that Congress should demand answers to. The most important is whether national security officials in the Trump administration carefully considered the risks and potential benefits of the operation, and explained them to Trump before the president approved it just five days after taking office. The military had considered carrying out the raid for months, but Obama administration officials did not sign off on it before the end of President Barack Obama’s term.
Trump was reportedly briefed on the plans over dinner with members of the national security team, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his domestic policy counselor, Steve Bannon.
Another question is whether the operation yielded valuable intelligence. In the immediate aftermath of the raid, White House officials described it as an intelligence coup that would save American lives. That assertion was called into question after the Pentagon, in an unusual move, released footage seized during the raid in an effort to highlight the value of the intelligence gathered, only to later acknowledge that a version of that video had been available online for years.
When Sen. John McCain, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested the raid had been a failure, Trump attacked him in a series of tweets, defiantly claiming that “Ryan died on a winning mission” and that debating the success or failure of a military operation “only emboldens the enemy!”
A spokesman for McCain said on Monday that the senator has no plans to hold hearings on the mission and that he has not sent the Pentagon a formal inquiry seeking more details. He should. The Trump administration needs to learn the lessons of any mistakes made in the raid. And Owens deserves to know whether his son died in a worthwhile pursuit or a botched mission of dubious value.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE NEW YORK TIMES