A senior White House spokeswoman said Sunday that she thinks President Trump will support an investigation requested by the father of William “Ryan” Owens, a Navy SEAL, into the circumstances surrounding his death during a raid on al-Qaeda last month in Yemen.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the principal White House deputy secretary, offered that assessment during an appearance on ABC News’s “This Week” in which she was asked to respond to a request by Bill Owens in a Miami Herald interview for an investigation related to his son’s death.
“I haven’t had the chance to speak with him directly about that, but I would imagine that he would be supportive of that,” Sanders said of Trump.
The raid — billed as an intelligence-gathering operation on the militant group — turned into an hour-long gunfight as Navy SEALs and troops from the United Arab Emirates clashed with well-entrenched al-Qaeda fighters. Owens reportedly died in the exchange of gunfire. Five other service members were wounded by hostile fire and a hard landing after a Marine transport aircraft crashed near the raid site.
Sanders said that as a parent, she can’t imagine the loss Owens’s parents are facing.
“I know that he paid the ultimate sacrifice when he went on that mission,” Sanders said of the younger Owens, a chief petty officer in the Navy. “And 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.”
In the Miami Herald interview, Bill Owens said he avoided a chance to meet with Trump when the president and his daughter Ivanka Trump came to Dover Air Force Base to pay his respects to Owens’s family.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to see him,’’ Owens recalled telling the chaplain who informed him that the president was on his way from Washington, according to the Herald. “I told them I don’t want to meet the president.”
In the interview with the paper, Owens said, “The government owes my son an investigation.”
It’s not clear what such an inquiry would entail. The Defense Department routinely reviews missions that result in death, but a larger formal investigation of combat deaths is rare, and it does not appear that one was started after Owens’s death. His father, however, appears to be calling for a formal inquiry into the decision-making process for the raid, which probably means it would fall on Congress to open an investigation.
Efforts by The Washington Post to reach Bill Owens on Sunday were unsuccessful. Sanders did not respond to a request later in the day Sunday to elaborate on what might be involved.
In recent weeks, White House officials have steadfastly defended the raid as a success.
At a news briefing this month, White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly called the raid “a huge success” and said that anyone who said otherwise does “a disservice” to the Navy SEAL who lost his life in the hostilities.
The planning for the raid started under the Obama administration, when the Pentagon began preparing for a broader campaign to go after al-Qaeda in Yemen after last year’s U.S.-Emirati operation that retook the Yemeni port city of Mukalla from the extremist group.
Although the White House has said the specific plan for the raid had been pushed from Obama to Trump because of the mission’s specific timing — namely, a night with no moon — Obama administration officials have debated this account. Obama’s National Security Council, the officials said, had seen only broad plans for future operations in Yemen.
Yemeni officials said the operation killed 15 women and children, including the 8-year-old daughter of the Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in 2011 in a U.S. drone strike.
Photos of the dead civilians were posted on social media after the raid. Although the Pentagon initially denied reports of dead civilians, officials acknowledged in the days following the raid that some had been killed and that they had begun a formal investigation. Last week, Human Rights Watch called for an inquiry of the civilian deaths and said that the United States must account for possible law-of-war violations.
John Wagner is a national political reporter covering the White House.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a staff writer and a former Marine infantryman.