Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the civilians were killed early Sunday in Yemen by gunfire from aircraft needed to support the SEALs after they were attacked by militants, among them women who ran to planned fighting positions. The SEALs, he said, were “in extremis,” a term the U.S. military uses to define situations in which service members or partner forces are under immediate threat. The dead are said to include the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric and a propagandist with al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen who was killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike.
“The enemy had gone to a building and taken up fighting positions in that building to fire on our troops who were on the ground conducting this operation,” Davis said. “The enemy put potentially the civilians at risk in doing so.”
The operation, which also included Emirati commandos, was launched in Bayda governorate under cover of darkness in the village of Yaklaa, a stronghold of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It was defended with land mines and guarded by heavily armed militants, and a fierce firefight erupted. Wounded SEALs were supposed to be evacuated for pickup by Marines flying on MV-22 Osprey aircraft from the USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship. One of the Ospreys was damaged badly enough in the rescue operation that U.S. military officials elected to destroy it with an airstrike to make sure that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula wasn’t able to exploit it.
White House press secretary Sean 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.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reviewed a memorandum on the plan Jan. 24 during his first week on the job, and Trump was briefed on it by national security adviser Michael Flynn the following day, Spicer said. Trump met with Mattis and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then authorized the mission one day later.
Colin Kahl, a national security official in the Obama administration, disputed Spicer’s description of the planning Thursday evening. Kahl, in tweets shared hundreds of times, said that the Defense Department worked up a general proposal that asked for the authorities to do raids in Yemen, but that the mission carried out Saturday was not specifically a part of that. Then-President Obama did not make any decisions because he thought it represented an expansion of the war in Yemen and believed the Trump administration should assess how to proceed, Kahl said.
“In a nutshell, Trump and his team owns the process and the ultimate decision — and the consequences,” Kahl tweeted.
Davis, asked by reporters Thursday morning whether the lunar cycle played a role in the raid, declined to answer directly, but said the Pentagon sought permission to do the raid after Trump took over.
“This was an operation that for reasons of the calendar had a date when it was most optimally conducted,” Davis said. “That date happened to fall after January 20th, and that’s when we sought the authority for and received the authority for proceeding with it.”
Another defense official said Kahl’s understanding of events is wrong.
“The raid had been planned several months and was given full consideration by the previous administration,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Kahl responded that the official’s version is “totally false.” He said that no specific concept of operations for the raid was briefed to or approved by officials who met for an interagency meeting early last month. The Defense Department may have had its own internal deliberations about the raid, Kahl said, but that is different.
Davis and Spicer also disputed allegations, reported by Reuters and the New York Times on Wednesday, that the mission was poorly planned and had lost the element of surprise. The Times reported that the SEALs learned their mission had been compromised after intercepting a transmission that showed the militants were preparing for their arrival.
“We have nothing to suggest that this was compromised,” Davis said, adding that report “does not match with reality.”
Spicer defended the mission as a “successful operation by all standards,” despite the loss of life, saying the intelligence gathered would protect American lives. Trump traveled Wednesday to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to view the arrival of the remains of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, 36.
“It’s hard to ever call something a complete success when you have the loss of life or people injured,” Spicer said. “But I think [it was] when you look at the totality of what was gained to prevent the future loss of life here in America and against our people and our institutions and probably throughout the world, in terms of what some of these individuals could have done.”
A U.S. military official familiar with the specifics of the mission expressed frustration with the way it has been characterized. The SEALs, he said, worked through several “contingencies” in difficult circumstances and brought everyone home, including Owens after he was mortally wounded. Even with modern technology, the official added, carrying out missions such as this one is rife with uncertainties.
Spicer identified the moonless night as the reason for the raid’s timing despite some other U.S. officials recommending against doing so. They cited the operational security of potential future missions as their reason. The New York Times included the detail in its report Wednesday.
Spicer did not respond Thursday to questions about why he confirmed the lack of moonlight’s role in the operation.
This story was originally published at 4:11 p.m. and updated several times through the evening with additional information.