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Questions persist about deadly Yemen raid and its results

March 1, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
More than a month after a controversial U.S. Special Operations raid in Yemen -- during which Navy SEAL Ryan Owens was killed -- there are still questions about how the mission was authorized, what it accomplished and more. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner looks at competing claims and Judy Woodruff gets the perspective of Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to President Trump.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: More than a month after a controversial special operations raid was launched on a moonless night in Yemen, questions persist about how that mission was authorized, what it accomplished, and how it’s been explained by the White House and by the president.

Margaret Warner begins our coverage.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity.

MARGARET WARNER: Democrats and Republicans alike rose to their feet last night the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, who was killed during a January raid in Yemen.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Ryan died as he lived, a warrior and a hero, battling against terrorism and securing our nation.

MARGARET WARNER: The Trump White House says the raid was planned by the Pentagon during the Obama administration, and President Trump gave the go-ahead during his first week in office.

The Pentagon intended as an intelligence-gathering mission against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the militant group’s most feared branches. But a gun battle erupted, and Owens was killed, reportedly along with as many as 30 civilians, including children.

Last night, the president said Defense Secretary Mattis told him the mission would lead to victories in the future.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence.

MARGARET WARNER: But others question that claim, and last month, Republican Senator John McCain suggested the raid was a failure.

Mr. Trump respond by charging such criticism only emboldened the enemy, and White House spokesman Sean Spicer joined in.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: I think anybody who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and does a disservice to the life of Chief Owens.

MARGARET WARNER: The SEAL’s father, William Owens, refused to meet with the president when his son’s remains were flown home.

Instead, he told The Miami Herald that Mr. Trump shouldn’t — quote — “hide behind his son’s death to prevent an investigation.”

The president again deflected criticism in an interview aired yesterday on FOX News, saying he followed the military’s advice.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This was a mission that was started before I got here. They explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. And they lost Ryan.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham offered this advice:

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: Don’t oversell results. The only sin I think a commander in chief can make is exaggerating successes and not understanding the challenges.

MARGARET WARNER: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And joining me now from the White House, Sebastian Gorka. He is deputy assistant to the president. He advises the administration on national security issues.

Mr. Gorka, thank you for being with us.

Picking up on what we heard from senator Graham, did the president fully understand the challenges involved when he signed off on this?

SEBASTIAN GORKA, Deputy Assistant to President Trump: Of course he did. He’s the commander in chief. He takes his job very, very seriously.

If you look at the way he’s treated law enforcement, if you look at the way he’s treated the military, this is a man who fully understands the burden of leadership and the responsibility he has as the commander in chief.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, he suggested in that interview with FOX News yesterday that he did it mainly because the generals suggested that he do it, that they recommended it. Is that the case?

SEBASTIAN GORKA: We don’t give our internal playbook away. That’s what the last administration did. That’s how people get in big, big trouble.

These are classified operations by our tier one operators. So, he acted and made a decision based upon the best advice of our military. That’s the way it has to work, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, my question is, Mr. Gorka, because we just — again, looking at that FOX interview, referring to the generals, the president said, “They lost Ryan.”

Does that mean he doesn’t accept responsibility?

SEBASTIAN GORKA: Of course it doesn’t. And I find it quite churlish when the media focuses on half a sentence here, half a sentence there.

Why would you even posit that of the president? It’s really unbecoming.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the president accepts, in effect, the buck stops with him?

SEBASTIAN GORKA: Of course he does. He’s the president. This is a team effort, nevertheless.

Nobody goes into battle alone, but he is the commander in chief.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We also heard the president say that the raid was highly successful, that it generated a large amount of intelligence that will be valuable, useful for the administration.

But we also know that there are a number of news organization reporting that senior officials saying that is not the case, that there is not valuable intelligence from that raid. What are we to believe?

SEBASTIAN GORKA: Is that the same kind of sources that reported all kinds of fallacious things inside the White House?

The sad truth is, Judy, since I started working here six weeks ago, I find that more than 50 percent of the more sensational things I read are wholly fallacious and unfounded.

I can tell you because I’m inside the building when those decisions are being taken. So, it’s easy to make up unnamed sources, but the fact is life is a little different from what you would read in the mainstream media inside the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you say to the American people who are asking, why is the U.S. in Yemen in the first place?

SEBASTIAN GORKA: Oh, very easy, very, very easy.

As the president pointed out yesterday, we are facing a global threat. It is radical Islamic terrorism. Another great synonym is the global jihadi movement. And the idea that Yemen or another country that doesn’t have adequate governance is not potentially connected to the threat to the United States is, again, a very, very dangerous concept.

These aren’t just events occurring 8,000 or 10,000 miles away. Remember, Omar Mateen, as he slayed 49 Americans in the Pulse nightclub, stopped to dial 911, not to call an ambulance, Judy, but to swear allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the Middle East.

That’s just how interconnected the threat is today and how real the war is from the streets of Aleppo right to Orlando.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to pick up on the phrase you just used, radical Islamic terrorism. We heard the president say that last night.

But it has also been reported, as you know, several news organizations, that the president’s new security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, has advised the president not to use that term, in effect because it suggests that all who believe in Islam as a faith, that there’s some strain there that’s connected to terrorism.

SEBASTIAN GORKA: How does it — A, the reports are, again, false. It’s fake news. Not true.

You need to talk to General McMaster, who I talked to yesterday before the speech. It’s not what he said. And, again, how does the phrase radical Islamic terrorism link all the believers of a faith to terrorism?

If I said radical Christian terrorism, does that mean I as a Catholic are a terrorist?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, I’m just trying to understand. So you’re saying the president is not suggesting that there is something inherent in all of Islam that is at odds with Western values?

SEBASTIAN GORKA: That would be asinine. Of course he didn’t.

We are dealing with a version of Islam, with criminals, mass murderers, people who run slave markets, that use a religion, use a seventh century, atavistic, blood-curdled version of it to justify their actions.

But I can tell you, the idea that you can separate jihadi terrorism from Islam is exactly what got us in the mess we are today, with 65 million refugees around the world and with ISIS controlling territory in multiple countries.

If you talk to Muslims, as I do — I have trained hundreds of Muslim officers from our partner nations when I was in the Defense Department — they will tell you, Judy, this is a war inside Islam for the heart of Islam. We are not at war with Islam. That is a very dangerous and very fallacious idea.

But we know that our Muslim allies are fighting a war for the heart of Islam. Ask the Jordanians. Ask the Egyptians. They understand the relevance of jihadist ideology in this war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sebastian Gorka, who is a deputy assistant to President Trump, we thank you very much.

SEBASTIAN GORKA: My pleasure. Any time, Judy.

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