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No 'Incompetence' or 'Bad Judgment' in Yemen Raid, Probe Finds

U.S. Central Command Commander Army Gen. Joseph Votel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee March 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Central Command Commander Army Gen. Joseph Votel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee March 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A military fact-finding investigation found no evidence of "incompetence or poor decision making" in the Jan. 29 Yemen raid that would require a broader probe as demanded by the father of slain Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens, a top commander said Thursday.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said he presided over what he called an "exhaustive" after-action review of the raid. "As a result, I made the determination that there was no need for an additional investigation into this particular operation."

"We've lost a lot on this operation," Votel said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the first combat mission personally authorized by President Donald Trump. "We lost a valued operator, we had people wounded, we caused civilian casualties, we lost an expensive aircraft."

Trump has repeatedly called the mission a "success." Votel said, "We did gain some valuable information that will be helpful to us. Our intention here was to improve our knowledge against this threat" posed by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has gained control over remote areas in central Yemen.

However, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and the committee chairman, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, continued to question whether it was correct to deem a mission a success in which Special Warfare Chief Petty Officer Owens, 36, of Peoria, Illinois, lost his life; three other team members were wounded; and a $70 million Marine MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft had to be destroyed on the ground.

"We honor their sacrifice no matter what happened in the mission," McCain told Votel. But when civilians are killed, an aircraft is lost, a SEAL is killed and "when you do not capture anyone as was part of the mission, that mission was not a success. But that happens in war. There's a thing called the fog of war. They did the best they could."

McCain said he still wants to know "why the decision was made to continue" with the mission when heavy fire from the enemy was encountered at the outset. "I still don't think this committee has an answer to that question."

McCaskill echoed McCain on questioning why the mission continued under heavy fire. "I'm also anxious to have the questions answered about the real value of the intelligence that was gathered. I think there have been some mixed signals about the value of the intelligence that was gathered," she said.

Last month, Votel told CBS News that the purpose of the raid was "to go in and collect intelligence. We accomplished that so, from that perspective, it was successful. I certainly understand how the family would look at this in a different light."

William Owens, father of Ryan Owens, told the Miami Herald last month that he wants a broader investigation to pursue the White House decision-making process and whether approval of the mission was done in haste.

"The government owes my son an investigation," the father told the newspaper. "Don't hide behind my son's death to prevent an investigation."

The elder Owens also said he refused to meet with Trump during the "dignified transfer" of his son's remains at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, although other members of the family did.

"I know that the mission has a lot of different critics, but it did yield a substantial amount of very important intel and resources that helped save American lives and other lives," Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy White House press secretary, said on ABC's "This Week" program last month.

When asked if Trump would support an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Owens' death, Sanders said she had not spoken directly to the president about it but added, "I would imagine that he would be supportive of that."

Following the raid, the military began three separate investigations: a fact-finding investigation under Article 15-6 of military regulations, an investigation into the loss of the Osprey, and an investigation of the civilian casualties.

Votel told the committee that the civilian casualty and fact-finding investigations had been concluded, but the aircraft investigation is still underway.

"We have made a determination based on our best information available that we did cause civilian casualties, somewhere between four and 12, that we accept responsibility for -- I accept responsibility for," Votel said.

Previous estimates from the Pentagon were that 14 to 20 civilians were killed, along with about 16 AQAP fighters in what CentCom has described as a "ferocious firefight." Yemeni officials have said that among the civilian dead was eight-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki, the daughter of AQAP's chief propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

In his testimony, Votel said the committee should look to him for accountability in the Jan. 29 raid in the remote and mountainous Yakla district of Yemen's Al Bayda governorate.

"I am responsible for this mission; I am the CentCom commander," he said. In his oversight of the fact-finding investigation, Votel said he was looking for "indicators" of possible "incompetence or poor decision-making or bad judgment throughout all this."

"I was satisfied that none of those indicators that I identified to you were present," he said. "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."

On Feb. 28, during the emotional highlight of his address to a joint session of Congress, Trump directed the attention of the audience to the gallery where Carryn Owens, Ryan Owens' widow, was seated in the same section with First Lady Melania Trump.

"Ryan died as he lived -- a warrior, and a hero --- battling against terrorism and securing our nation" in the Yemen raid, Trump said.

Trump also said that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had told him that "Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies."

On March 2, the U.S. began a series of wide-ranging airstrikes against AQAP targets, using a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft. On Monday, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the total number of airstrikes in Yemen was more than 40.

Toward the end of the SASC hearing, McCain referred to Vietnam in stating that a fuller examination of the Yemen raid might be needed.

He said, "Unless we tell the American people the truth, the absolute truth, then we are going to revisit another war a long time ago where we didn't tell the American people the truth and we paid a very high price for it."

"There's 55,000 names engraved in black granite not far from here," McCain said of the Vietnam Memorial. "The American people were not told the truth about whether we were succeeding or failing in that war and then, because of that, it all collapsed."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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Headlines Global Hot Spots Special Forces Naval Operations Navy SEALs Congress Yemen Richard Sisk

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