Top CENTCOM General: No bad judgement, valuable gains from Yemen raid

Are we finally seeing the end of the media debate over the “botched” special forces raid in Yemen? Unless you were hiding under a rock you surely heard about this one. Navy SEALs launched an attack on an Al Qaeda stronghold which resulted in the death of one Navy SEAL, injuries to several others and significant damage to one of the aircraft used in the raid. After word leaked out, two conflicting narratives immediately emerged. NBC News was quick to declare the operation a failure, saying that it produced no significant gains in either gathering intelligence or taking out high-value targets. Shortly thereafter, other reports indicated that the opposite was true.

Now we finally have input from somebody who should know. Gen. Joseph Votel testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and said that while the experience definitely provided many lessons which they will take forward, there was no fault to be found and the operation was a highly productive one. (Associated Press)

The top U.S. commander for the Middle East told senators Thursday that he has completed an exhaustive review of the Yemen raid that killed a Navy SEAL, and has concluded there were no lapses in judgment or decision-making surrounding the operation.

Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, said he sees no need for additional investigations into the January mission that triggered debate in Washington over what went wrong and whether important intelligence was actually gathered. It was the first military raid authorized by President Donald Trump…

Votel, who presided over an internal review, said he was “looking for information gaps where we can’t explain what happened in a particular situation or we have conflicting information between members of the organization. I am looking for indicators of incompetence or poor decision making or bad judgment throughout all this.”

In the end, he said, “I was satisfied that none of those indicators that I identified to you were present. I think we had a good understanding of exactly what happened on this objective and we’ve been able to pull lessons learned out of that, that we will apply in future operations.” He said there was no need for an additional investigation.

Votel added that he believes the U.S. gained valuable information on al-Qaida militants.

There was definitely a “debacle” taking place here, but it wasn’t in the form of the conduct of our special forces or the planning of the operation. The true collapse which took place was on the part of either the media or malcontents inside the government seeking to undermine the Trump administration. (Though at this point I would put my money on a combination of the two.) We have zero reason to doubt the testimony of the general and even the most partisan among us should have approached the story with a more gentle hand. The planning of this operation began months before Barack Obama left office, but the final approval was given by President Trump so the responsibility lies on his shoulders for better or worse. Still, this was something which evolved over a span of time encompassing both administrations.

Somebody at NBC News was talking to someone inside the military, the Department of Defense or the White House. Whoever that person might have been was feeding information which did not immediately belong in the public sphere and which was dubious in its veracity at best. That doesn’t mean that the information was being delivered with an intentional negative spin, although it might have been. Either way, operations involving Navy SEALs are pretty much at the highest level of classification and information about such activities should be released only judiciously and with the approval of both the White House and top levels of military command.

But as I alluded to above, we still don’t know precisely what this unknown person said to the NBC reporter and likely never will. It’s still possible that the source simply expressed disappointment in the failure to locate and eliminate some specific target or a particular bit of intelligence data and NBC decided to blow that up into the “debacle” narrative to make the Trump administration look bad. But even if the source’s information was recorded faithfully, a fair and unbiased journalist would have sought out some confirmation before running with it.

Are we going to see an apology from NBC over this? Don’t hold your breath. If we are wrestling with the question of what we learned from this experience, it’s that Donald Trump needs to be prepared for a very different type of hostile engagement going forward. This one has nothing to do with Al Qaeda and everything to do with the toxic atmosphere inside the newsroom at NBC and possibly inside his own staff.