Debate on wisdom of deadly Yemen raid gets political

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A man walks past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa, Yemen February 6, 2017. Picture taken February 6, 2017.  REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah - RTX2ZZOC

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AUDIE CORNISH: There are lingering questions over the deadly raid by U.S. Navy SEALs in Yemen last month.

While it’s still unclear exactly what happened on the ground, the issue of whether the raid should be seen as a success has become a political one.

Eight days ago, President Trump flew to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to honor a Navy SEAL killed in Yemen. The U.S. also lost an Osprey aircraft in the January 29 raid on al-Qaida. Now, despite these losses, the White House called the operation a success, but critics like Republican Senator John McCain disagreed.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: When you lose a $75 million airplane and, more importantly, American lives are lost — a life is lost and wounded, I don’t believe that you can call it a success.

AUDIE CORNISH: The president fired back this morning, tweeting that it only emboldens the enemy to discuss the raid with reporters. He said of McCain: “He’s been losing so long, he doesn’t know how to win anymore.”

Late today, McCain’s daughter defended her former prisoner of war father on Twitter, saying: “Trump has never served. My father can’t bend one of his knees or lift one of his arms above his head. I am done with this. Done.”

White House spokesman Sean Spicer argued Wednesday that the SEALs gathered critical intelligence.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: It’s absolutely a success. And I think anyone who would suggest it’s not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens.

AUDIE CORNISH: The raid also killed civilians, including women and children. The New York Times reported this week that Yemen has now withdrawn permission for such operations. Yemen’s foreign minister denied that, but said they are seeking a reassessment.

We break down what we know of the raid now with Nancy Youssef, national security correspondent at BuzzFeed News.

Welcome to the program.

NANCY YOUSSEF, BuzzFeed: Thanks for having me.

AUDIE CORNISH: Now, with the tweets from the White House, Congress, this has really become a kind of political football. What are people saying inside the Pentagon?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, it’s frankly made it hard for people in the Pentagon to talk about this raid, because what they see as a military operation has now evolved into a political issue.

Inherently, they don’t talk about special operations raids. They’re covert. And now you have everything being put in this political context trying to answer the question of what is success on a U.S. military operation?

John McCain has called it a failure. Last week, the White House was saying success was a delicate term because civilians and Chief Owens had been killed in the raid. And this week, they said it was categorically a success. So, inside, rather than a discussion about success or failure, there is a real measure going on about the risks and rewards of this raid and was it worth it, given how tumultuous it was, that it evolved into a firefight, and that you now have questions swirling around it that, was this worth it?

Was the intelligence gathered worth all that’s come out of it since?

AUDIE CORNISH: I think this has also sparked a greater conversation about the process and the thinking that goes into green-lighting a raid like this, right, and also comparing it to the Obama administration.

NANCY YOUSSEF: Right.

AUDIE CORNISH: Talk a little bit about that. What do we know about what happened in terms of that process?

NANCY YOUSSEF: So, the Obama administration was really risk-averse, and President Trump during the campaign really campaigned on the idea of being more aggressive in terms of going after extremist elements like al-Qaida, which was the target of this raid, and the Islamic State.

And so we have heard that the Obama administration was aware of the raid and the planning for it, which was months before it actually happened, but that they had decided essentially that this wasn’t a decision for them to make, that while it had reached to the National Security Council, it hadn’t reached the president.

And because the military wanted to launch this raid on the first lunar moon, which was on January 29, nine days after the raid, the decision was formally made by President Trump. I think the question that people are having is, what does the process tell us about how President Trump will make decisions on these raids and how much does differ from the Obama administration?

And is this more aggressive approach how — is it going to manifest in more risky raids, more risky operations than we had seen in the past eight years under the Obama administration, which really was willing to even endure some risks of terror groups being allowed to sustain, rather than take the risk of doing operations like this, dropping boots on the ground in a combat zone like war-torn Yemen?

AUDIE CORNISH: As you mentioned, Yemen has been in freefall for many years now.

Are we seeing a renewed focus by the U.S. on this country, and do we have any sense about what that could mean going forward?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, we remember, in the early hours of the Trump administration, they conducted drone strikes in Yemen. And we had started to hear talk that, while the focus has been on ISIS for the past few years, al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula has been one of the few groups that’s been able to execute external attacks on Western allies.

Remember, they were part of the planning for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, France. And so there has been a feeling that perhaps this administration would want to expand its counterterrorism operations to not just focus on ISIS, but focus on a group like al-Qaida that has really been able to flourish in the last five years of the Yemeni civil war, because there’s so much ungoverned space and such a fertile ground for them to recruit and train.

AUDIE CORNISH: Nancy Youssef is national security correspondent for BuzzFeed.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

NANCY YOUSSEF: Thank you.

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