National Security

ACLU seeks documents on planning of Yemen raid that killed Navy SEAL

Marine One, with President Donald Trump aboard, lands at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. Trump traveled to Dover AFB to meet with family members Chief of Special Warfare Operator William "Ryan" Owens, 36, of Peoria, Ill, the U.S. service member who was killed in a raid in Yemen, and who's remains where returned today.
Marine One, with President Donald Trump aboard, lands at Dover Air Force Base, Del. Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. Trump traveled to Dover AFB to meet with family members Chief of Special Warfare Operator William "Ryan" Owens, 36, of Peoria, Ill, the U.S. service member who was killed in a raid in Yemen, and who's remains where returned today. AP

One hundred days after a Navy SEAL died during a raid on an al Qaida encampment in Yemen, the American Civil Liberties on Monday filed suit demanding that the administration make public documents explaining the legal basis for the raid and how it was planned and executed.

The Jan. 29 raid, the first covert counterterrorism operation authorized by President Donald Trump, resulted in a firefight with suspected terrorists that killed 36-year-old Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens. As many as 30 civilians also might have been killed in the raid, according to local media and medics in the region.

“We have seen that this White House cannot be trusted to give the public accurate information, which is especially critical when the president authorizes military action that kills civilians,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project. “The administration’s explanations have little credibility, and the documents we seek are essential for public accountability when civilians are killed in the name of our national security.”

The lawsuit asks a federal court to enforce a Freedom of Information Act request the group filed in March with the departments of Defense, State and Justice as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, seeking documents and records about the raid as well as the Pentagon’s assessment of civilian casualties. The Pentagon concluded that between four and 12 civilians died in the raid, but the Britain-based human rights group Reprieve, which monitors civilian casualties of drone strikes, says it has evidence of 23 civilian deaths, including a newborn and 10 children.

One of the dead was reported to be the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al Awlaki, a senior U.S.-born al Qaida leader who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

We have seen that this White House cannot be trusted to give the public accurate information.

Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project

Despite the deaths of civilians and Owens, the Trump administration has repeatedly insisted that the raid was a “success,” saying that 14 al Qaida members were killed and valuable intelligence seized. But news reports have disputed that assessment, quoting U.S. military officials saying that “almost everything went wrong” in a botched mission that the president gave the green light to without sufficient intelligence or ground support.

Some lawmakers have also raised doubts about the operation, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., calling it a “failure.”

[READ MORE: White House stands by Trump’s first military raid, despite civilian, U.S. casualties]

The ACLU lawsuit also asks for information about any changes the Trump administration has made to the rules of engagement when it comes to avoiding civilian casualties, citing reports that it had exempted some areas in Yemen by classifying them as “areas of active hostilities.”

“The Obama administration had a poor transparency record about lethal strikes in Yemen, but it at least put in place safeguards aimed at protecting civilians from harm,” Shamsi said. “The public has a right to know about any exceptions the Trump administration is making to civilian protection rules generally and what really happened with this tragic operation specifically.”

[READ MORE: 3 probes of Yemen raid underway but not the one Navy SEAL’s father wants]

In the weeks after the raid, the Pentagon launched three separate investigations into the operation. The review into Owens’ death was closed soon after. Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said there was no evidence of “poor decision-making or bad judgment” related to the operation, and that the Pentagon had determined that there was “no need for an additional investigation.”

The civilian casualty assessment was also closed after concluding that between four and 12 civilians were killed during the raid.

The Pentagon also launched an aviation mishap investigation. An MV-22 Osprey, which had been sent in to evacuate the wounded from the hour-long firefight that left Owens dead, crash-landed after losing power and injured two more service members. The damaged $70 million aircraft was later destroyed by a U.S. airstrike so it would not fall into the hands of the militants, according to the Pentagon.

Owens’ father, William Owens, a retired Fort Lauderdale police officer, has questioned the planning for the mission and declined to meet with Trump when his son’s body was returned to the United States. The elder Owens is not a party to the ACLU lawsuit.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

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