Hundreds of informants had passed through his life. Some were friends, lovers, neighbors. Others posed as local artists. One was a student hiding a camera in his tie. Sometimes it was “a comrade in a meeting, an asshole buddy you trusted with your heart and being, a confidant whose life torments were deeply intertwined with your own, the trusted friend who sat next to you at a funeral,” Mesches wrote in 2001.”
In 2000, his suspicions were confirmed. Using a Freedom of Information Act request, Mesches obtained a box filled with his own 760-page FBI file, discovering that from 1945 to 1972, he’d been carefully watched. Throughout his life as an acclaimed painter as well as an activist, the FBI had been keeping tabs on his personal life, places he lived and worked, book shops he visited, protests he attended and more.
Hundreds of informants had passed through his life. Some were friends, lovers, neighbors. Others posed as local artists. One was a student hiding a camera in his tie. Sometimes it was “a comrade in a meeting, an asshole buddy you trusted with your heart and being, a confidant whose life torments were deeply intertwined with your own, the trusted friend who sat next to you at a funeral,” Mesches wrote in 2001.
Even with his FBI file in hand, the artist still had no information about the 200 missing works, but could draw his own conclusions: the pages covering three months before and after the break-in were missing entirely from the file. Hundreds of other bits were redacted, as well, mostly in thick black marker. The visual power of those redactions resonated with Mesches. He thought they were beautiful, and decided to turn the files into artwork. Today, those works feel eerily prescient.
Fifteen years ago this month, in September of 2002, Mesches (who died last year) opened The FBI Files, an exhibit of forty collages and one painting, layering the pages of his own file with magazine clippings, illustrated texts, photographs and paintings. The result, at the MoMA P.S. 1 arts space, was not just a portrait of his own lived experience, but a series of unconventional illustrations of a moment in American cultural history, a collection of pieces brimming with personal philosophy and critical thought. Where the words are not hidden by government redactions, they are elsewhere covered up by, or juxtaposed with, movie posters, celebrities, slick advertisements, images of Malcolm X, the KKK and Playboy covers — all working together to tell multiple stories of violence, control and power.
On the 15th anniversary of the exhibit, it’s become clear that The FBI Files was ahead of its time. As life in America has become increasingly defined by post-9/11 surveillance, FBI files have emerged as a surprising yet legitimate medium for artistic expression. The pervasiveness of being watched by the state creates a vast anxiety, our world filled with concrete artifacts of declassified and leaked materials. As more artists have embraced these primary documents over the past decade-and-a-half, their artistic processes have filled in the gaps created by government redactions.
Earlier this year, Sadie Barnette’s exhibition Do Not Destroy featured her ex-Black Panther father’s extensive FBI files, which she decorated with glitter, rhinestones and pink paint, re-imagining them as a cross-generational family story. In 2004, Jenny Holzer began using declassified government files, projecting them onto the sides of buildings and referencing them in her Dust Paintings. In her 2016 Whitney Museum exhibition, Astro Noise, Intercept co-founding editor Laura Poitras included excerpts from her FBI file, too. Each of these works takes a different approach at creatively critiquing the pervasiveness of government surveillance, as each of these artists’ relationships with surveillance differ. But it is telling of the surveillance state we live in that these types of works are emerging as common and compelling, allowing artists to interpret and amplify the histories that the authorities don’t want you to hear.
Born in the Bronx, Mesches moved to Los Angeles as a teenager to study advertising design, but dropped out of college. He learned more from his personal practice of painting and protesting. He was working in Hollywood painting sets when studio workers famously went on strike in 1946. “I came out of that strike politically aware, determined, more than ever, to make socially relevant art,” he once said, according to an essay on his art by Howard Zinn, who explains that Hollywood had become “a glamorous target” for the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Perhaps the most moving aspect of The FBI Files is the way his work as an expressionist painter seeps in from the edges of these collages; these are emotional works, with equally distributed moments of sadness, intimacy, horror, humor and emptiness. Many of the pieces are overwhelmingly beautiful. There are pink-hued pages, vivid colors and broad strokes, abstract shapes and lines echoing the blacked out redactions.
Over the years, Mesches’ paintings (featured in over 100 solo shows, and at many major art institutions) depicted social unrest, war and violence. “My paintings are about the frailty of existence, the social tensions of our day, erosion, silence, madness, values, distance, comedy, ridicule and anger,” he wrote in a 1997 text surrounding an exhibition in Florida, where he lived for many years. With The FBI Files, his own life experiences shed further light on the stories he’d spent his life interrogating through art.
It makes sense that in 2014, when Mesches was 91, selections from The FBI Files were exhibited once again at the Life On Mars Gallery in Brooklyn. When Mesches made these works, he called them “illuminated manuscripts,” using paint and ink and mixed media to depict the government tracking his every move. In doing so, his work illuminates even more: the surreal conditions of surveillance we continue to live under today.
Top image: Arnold Mesches, “Surviellence”, 2000. Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 126 in.
Wray Installed as FBI Director, Replaces Fired Comey
The ceremony in a courtyard at FBI headquarters was largely a formality since Wray has been on the job for nearly two months. But in a reflection of the unusual circumstances of the event, it took place without Trump. And Wray’s two direct predecessors …
Download audio: https://www.fbi.gov/audio-repository/ftw-podcast-2016-cius-092517.mp3/@@download/file/ftw-podcast-2016-cius-092517.mp3
Ahead of Sunday’s NFL games, Trump renews his call for players to stand during anthem
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How healthcare went from the GOP’s biggest priority after Trump’s election to a total debacle
On January 10, just days before his inauguration, President Donald Trump told The New York Times that Republicans would have Obamacare repealed “probably sometime next week.” Now, as September comes to a close, Obamacare is still the law of the …and more »
Plenty of Blame to Go Around: The Long Collapse of American Foreign Policy
Indeed, although we may never know with certainty, it is quite possible that ham-handedAmerican and European meddling in Ukrainian politics was the catalyst that convinced Putin to intervene militarily in Ukraine to begin with. The illusion that the …
The Russia Investigations: Sens. Burr, Warner To Give Update; Spotlight On Twitter
- White House staffers were reportedly worried that White House counsel Don McGahn would resign this summer
- McGahn was said to have been frustrated over President Trump’s frequent meetings with Jared Kushner
- Trump and Kushner are subjects in Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, and McGahn was reportedly worried their meetings could be seen as an effort to coordinate stories
West Wing staffers were concerned that White House counsel Don McGahn would quit earlier this summer because of his frustration over meetings between President Donald Trump and his senior and adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is focusing on both Trump and Kushner, and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the election in his favor.
Kushner invited scrutiny after he met with two Russian officials — Russia’s former ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, and the head of a sanctioned Russian bank, Sergey Gorkov — during the transition period. Kushner was also present during a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between top members of the Trump campaign and several Russians, including a lawyer with ties to the Kremlin who had offered compromising information on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Mueller’s focus on Trump appears to center primarily around his decision to fire former FBI director James Comey in May and his motivations for doing so. The White House initially said Comey had been dismissed because of his handling of the Clinton email investigation, but Trump later told NBC’s Lester Holt that “this Russia thing” was a factor in his decision.
Given their proximity to the Russia probe, McGahn was reportedly concerned that the frequency with which Trump and Kushner met could be seen as an attempt to coordinate their stories, three officials familiar with the matter told The Journal.
(Don McGahn, general counsel for the Trump transition team, gets into an elevator in the lobby at Trump Tower, November 15, 2016 in New York City. President-elect Donald Trump is in the process of choosing his presidential cabinet as he transitions from a candidate to the president-elect.Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The White House counsel was so frustrated that then chief of staff Reince Priebus and then chief strategist Steve Bannon had to urge McGahn not to resign. He ultimately decided to stay after learning that Trump had hired a legal team, headed by white-collar defense attorney Ty Cobb, tasked with handling the White House’s response to Mueller’s investigation, according to the report.
Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti wrote on Friday that part of McGahn’s concern regarding meetings between Kushner and Trump could center around the fact that both men were witness to McGahn’s thought process surrounding Comey’s firing.
The weekend before he fired Comey on May 9, Trump put together a draft letter laying out his reasons for dismissing the FBI director at his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey. Kushner, who reportedly argued strongly for Comey’s firing, was also at the club that weekend, as was top policy adviser Stephen Miller and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka. Cobb confirmed to Business Insider earlier this month that the letter is in Mueller’s possession.
After the letter was drafted, McGahn reportedly advised Trump against sending it to Comey and gave Miller a marked-up copy of the letter, highlighting several sections that he believed could be problematic and needed to be struck. McGahn is one of the White House staffers Mueller is interested in interviewing, likely because of his involvement in the events leading up to Comey’s firing.
It’s unclear what, if any, role Kushner had in crafting the letter. But if both he and Trump were witness to McGahn’s thought process around Comey’s firing, their statements to one another could be “fair game” for Mueller to dig into as part of his investigation, Mariotti wrote. If the president met frequently enough with Kushner, Mueller could probe into their conversations and find inconsistencies in their stories, he added.
“McGahn is doing what any good defense attorney would do in these situations–create a protocol to ensure there is a ‘prover’ in the room for these conversations so that the third person could verify that issues relating to the investigation were never discussed,” Mariotti wrote.
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Terrorism and Offshore Financing
The life-blood of an effective terrorist network is financing and shell companies facilitate the easy distribution of money. The Islamic State, popularly referred to as ISIS makes $1 million to $2 million a day in oil production, it has obtained over $100 million in ransoms from kidnapping and collects ‘taxes’ from the 6 million people it has gained control over.
Al-Qaeda’s worldwide operations require $30-50 million per year. The September 11 attacks, for example, cost approximately $500,000. But not every terrorist attack requires large sums of money. The London transit bombings cost a mere $15,000 and the Paris bombings cost about $10,000 or less. Regardless of the size of the operation, funding a terrorism enterprise is easily done under the cover of shell companies. In contrast, the United States has spent (as of 2014) over $1.6 trillion since September 11, 2001 on its major military operations abroad and $9 million a day just on fighting ISIS.
If we want to fight terrorism effectively, we should also be cracking down on terrorism financing. Given the ease and persistence of terrorist financing — particularly using shell companies — a shift in attention on financial regulations that would stop terrorism financing would be a good start. Also the Panama Papers incident shows how easy it is to finance terror using US shell companies. With the ease of incorporation, some may decide to create companies to hide assets in for tax evasion or money laundering purposes. However, even more alarming is that terrorists can easily disguise their true identities from law enforcement through shell companies. A potential terrorist cannot take a flight to neighbouring states without a passport or driver’s licence, but they can form a shell company without any information in a matter of minutes. In a high-profile instance of this, for many years, Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout used shell corporations to anonymously supply terrorist groups around the globe with major weaponry like tanks and shoulder-file missiles.
Laws against money laundering and terror financing are used around the world. In the United States, the Patriot Act was passed after the September 11 attacks, giving the government anti-money laundering powers to monitor financial institutions. The Patriot Act has generated a great deal of controversy in the United States since its enactment. The United States has also collaborated with the United Nations and other countries to create the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program. RAND Corporation has brought out a large body of literature and analysis on terror financing and its implications.
Terrorism Financing in India
In January 2015, the inaugural US-India Anti-Money Laundering/ Counterterrorism Finance (AML/CFT) dialogue was held. India is a member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and two FATF-style regional bodies, the Eurasian Group on Combating Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism and the Asia-Pacific Group on Money Laundering. India’s Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU-IND) is also a member of the Egmont Group (an informal international gathering of financial intelligence units formed in 1995). Indian officials monitor and regulate money transfers, require the collection of data for wire transfers, oblige non-profit organizations to file suspicious transaction reports, and regulate and monitor these entities to prevent misuse and terrorism financing.
Although the Government of India has aligned its domestic AML/ CFT laws with international standards by enacting amendments to the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) in November 2012, the government has yet to implement the legislation effectively, especially with regard to criminal convictions. Law enforcement agencies typically open criminal investigations reactively and seldom initiate proactive analysis and long-term investigations. While the Indian government has taken action against certain hawala financing activities, prosecutions have generally focused on non-financial businesses that conduct hawala transactions as a secondary activity. Additionally, the government has not taken adequate steps to ensure that all relevant industries are complying with AML/CFT regulations though the reporting of Suspicious Transaction Reports (STRs) relating specifically to terrorism financing has increased significantly.
From July 2014 to April 2015, the FIU-IND received 76,149 STRs and disseminated 52,485 STRs to various intelligence and law enforcement authorities. The degree of training and expertise in financial investigations involving transnational crime or terrorism-affiliated groups varies widely among the federal, state and local levels and depends on the financial resources and individual policies of various jurisdictions. More than 300 personnel from various zonal and sub-zonal offices of India’s Enforcement Directorate have participated in training programmes on financial investigation, money laundering, foreign exchange contraventions, effective prosecutions, and cyber crimes as part of an effort to build capacity.
US investigators have had limited success in coordinating the seizure of illicit proceeds with their Indian counterparts. While intelligence and investigative information supplied by US law enforcement authorities has led to numerous seizures of terrorism-related funds, a lack of follow-through on investigational leads has prevented a more comprehensive approach. The Government of India has also taken steps to increase financial inclusion through expanding access to the banking sector and issuing biometric-enabled universal identification numbers.
Any expert on Indian stock markets knows that our markets are increasingly being moved by global flows — both inflows and outflows of funds. Secondly, such flows may be the ill-gotten wealth of Indians kept abroad in tax havens, or domestic funds sent out and brought back to facilitate some activities. This has to be seen in the context of concerns expressed by our then National Security Advisor MK Narayanan regarding the possibility of terror funds coming in through financial markets a few years ago. India has also taken steps to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR 2178) related to foreign terrorist fighters and to advance efforts on Politically Exposed Persons (PEP). It recalls its decision in resolution 1373 (2001) that Member States shall afford one another the greatest measure of assistance in connection with criminal investigations or proceedings relating to the financing or support of terrorist acts.
Black Money and Tax Havens: Tracing the connection between terrorism and offshore financing
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“Ryan died as he lived, a warrior and a hero, battling against terrorism and securing our nation,” the President said on Feb. 28. The SEAL’s tearful widow, Carryn Owens, sat in the place of honor above the chamber.
Chief Petty Officer Owens, a 36-year-old father of three, was indeed a warrior, experienced and combat-proven, the most elite of the elite, and a long-time member of SEAL Team 6.
“Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity,” President Trump continued, turning to look up at Ryan’s grieving widow.
A gold star family member as guest of the White House. A presidential call out. The heartfelt applause and the raw emotions.
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The scene was a time-honored ritual, a public tribute to the price paid by a warrior and his family. What made it unusual, however, was how Ryan Owens died. His death came just days into the new administration, in a country virtually unknown to the American public, on a troubled mission approved and ordered by a team that had never worked together before, for a purpose that Owens’ own father, a former special operator himself, questions.
“It was a screw-up from the start that ended badly,” Bill Owens told NBC News in an exclusive broadcast interview.
The retired police officer isn’t one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. He’s spent his entire life serving, in the Army as a green beret, in the Navy, and as a policeman in Florida, where he’s now retired.
But Bill Owens has severe doubts that his son or anyone else should have been in the line of fire that January night.
“Why did they do this mission at this time?” he asked.
The father is distressed that the Trump administration has insisted the mission was an unbridled success.
He is frustrated that the White House has asserted that anyone who questions the success of the mission is doing a disservice to the memory of his son. And he particularly resents the White House using his son’s death for political purposes.
Related: SEAL, American Girl Die in First Trump-Era U.S. Military Raid
In an extensive interview with NBC News, Bill Owens said as far as he is concerned there was no need for President Trump to burnish Ryan’s legacy. “I know how wonderful [Ryan] is, so I don’t need that reaffirmation from the president,” Owens said. But more importantly, he said, “I feel that somebody has to stick up for Ryan — and find out why this happened. And — I’m his father. And I’ll do it.”
So what did happen? Over the past eight months, NBC News has spoken to more than two dozen officials and special operations insiders to piece together the facts of this Top Secret mission.
The Raid on Yakla
Chief Petty Officer Owens was killed the night of Jan. 29 in a small village deep in the interior of southern Yemen, an ancient nation on the Arabian Peninsula, and one that has been in a state of civil war for two and a half years. Yemen is also home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terror group’s strongest affiliate, which has acquired arms and money as the country has descended into chaos.
In early 2016, U.S. intelligence grew increasingly alarmed by the gathering strength of AQAP, and the Obama administration began deliberating a new counterterrorism “campaign” to weaken it. The campaign included accelerated drone strikes and even manned airstrikes, as well as ground raids.
SEAL Team 6 rotated elements into the region every six months, and was sequestered for the high-end kill-or-capture missions in places like Somalia and Uganda. The highly capable and in-demand “national mission force,” requiring Presidential approval to attack, had previously conducted a single stealthy raid inside Yemen, a failed hostage rescue mission in late 2014. In 2016, U.S. special operations forces also worked alongside forces of the United Arab Emirates and Yemen to retake control of coastal communities that had fallen under the control of AQAP.
In late 2016, as the Obama administration deliberated next steps in the country a new campaign plan was created. But it deferred a final decision, and as is customary in any handoff from one administration to another, President Trump was accorded the privilege of approving any new operations and commitments.
One day after being sworn in, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was briefed on Yemen. While Washington was in transition, forces in the region continued planning. A Special Operations Task Force overseeing SEAL Team 6 prepared a series of raids on AQAP strongholds and leaders, even rehearsing operations in the nearby country of Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.
A specific raid was proposed. A small and isolated village where AQAP had congregated had been identified. U.S. intelligence, working with the UAE, concluded that important activity was taking place there. According to two officials in the Trump White House, the Special Forces of the UAE and the United States had increasingly been working together, and a coordinated raid on the village of Yaklawas proposed.
Related: Inside the Yemen SEAL Raid
Officially, the mission was labeled a sensitive site exploitation (SSE), a raid to capture electronics and documents that would reveal AQAP membership and concentrations. The plan was to then exploit that material and stage rapid follow-on strikes, according to multiple military and special operations experts.
Unofficially, and highly secret, even from many inside the Pentagon, was the far more sensitive kill-or-capture mission to go after AQAP leaders. Under the Obama administration, no explicit capture mission had ever been approved, the sources say. And, according to multiple special operations sources, it was highly secret that the national mission force would work hand-in-hand with a foreign counterpart, even in support of UAE objectives as opposed to American unilateral “high value target” kill missions. In addition, Yemen was what the national security community called “outside of a declared theater of war,” where the legality and implications of operations were far more sensitive.
Secretary Mattis supported the mission as presented to him, and the new Trump national security team met for the first time on the night of Jan. 25 to consider it. Present were the president, Vice President Pence, Mattis, then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, CIA Director nominee Mike Pompeo, chief strategist to the President Steve Bannon, and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. Absent was any representative of the State Department, a departure from common practice in past administrations of both parties.
Over dinner, they discussed an upcoming raid to occur that very weekend.
Yemen Raid Latest: Still No Valuable Intel Produced, Ten Senior Officials Say 2:04
“It’s certainly unusual,” said NBC News consultant Sean Naylor. “You don’t often hear about major combat actions being approved over a meal…”
Naylor is one of the country’s leading experts on the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the national mission force made up of SEAL Team 6 and the Army’s Delta Force as well as other highly-prized counterterrorism elements.
Under the Obama administration, sources say, a mission of this sort would have been discussed and approved at multiple levels subordinate to the principals before being briefed inside the secure White House Situation Room.
Two White House sources tell NBC News that Mattis and Dunford walked the new president through the mission objectives in the dining room, offering unreserved endorsement. If AQAP leaders were present, there was a chance for a big win; if not, the presence of leadership in the past and the potential intelligence take on the ground promised at least a fruitful site exploitation that would lead off a series of follow-on raids.
According to the two sources, both Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner questioned acting on what they saw as a leftover Obama plan.
President Trump was disposed to approve the mission, but the next morning, he asked Flynn what he thought before he signed the so-called execute order or EXORD.
According to two White House officials, Flynn told the President that a tip from the UAE indicated that one of the most wanted terrorists in the world, Qasim al-Rimi, the leader of AQAP, might be at the Yemen target. He had been sighted there previously.
It wasn’t unusual for Mr. Trump to rely on Flynn for advice. The President had gotten to know his national security advisor over months of close quarters on the campaign trail. And he was uniquely qualified to offer judgment. Flynn had himself served as director of intelligence for the JSOC. He had reached out to his former colleagues at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina to gather his own intelligence on the upcoming mission both before and after Trump’s inauguration, sources say. And, according to multiple sources, he had himself spoken to his UAE counterparts.
Flynn said that capturing or killing al-Rimi would distinguish the president from Obama right out of the box, the sources said. Trump would be a risk taker where Obama was a hesitant and endless deliberator, Flynn said. And the president would be honor the Gulf allies who were operating in Yemen. Multiple sources say that Flynn labeled the first week raid a “game changer.”
On Jan. 26, the day after the mission was greenlighted at the dinner, Ryan Owens’ team of Navy SEALs, staged from Djibouti to the ships of the USS Makin Island amphibious readiness group operating off the coast. Onboard the ships were a 2,200 strong Marine Corps battalion task force as well as fighter aircraft and attack helicopters that would serve as a Quick Reaction Force should something go wrong. The SEALs and the Marines had been practicing together since December for a possible boots on-the-ground Yemen raid. Also present, according to multiple sources, were commandos and intelligence specialists of the UAE.
Just after midnight on Jan. 29, the force swooped into the village. SEAL Team 6 landed five miles downhill from the objective. The SEALs would hike to the village in silence, and surprise the AQAP element there.
But as the SEALs neared the outskirts, there was trouble. Overhead drones and spy planes detected unusual activity indicating the mission might have been compromised.
Related: Still No Actionable Intelligence From Yemen Raid
“Overhead surveillance of the target revealed individuals moving to fighting positions,” Naylor said.
The Special Operations Task Force headquarters in Djibouti and the command element still on board the Makin Island ships knew simultaneously that the element of surprise was lost. We may never know what the discussion was, nor who ultimately made the decision, but commanders discussed the risk versus the payoff and decided to proceed.
Entering the village, the SEALs met fierce and unexpected resistance. Land mines and defensive positions were prepared. Even women took up arms. Within the first five minutes of the firefight, Ryan Owens was mortally wounded, hit with a bullet just above his armored breast plate. A MEDEVAC element was immediately requested on the radio. In the next few minutes, at least two other SEALs were wounded.
Related: Trump Ducks Blame for Deadly Yemen Raid
Two Marine Corps CV-22 Osprey tilt rotor vertical take-off and landing aircraft were dispatched for the 15-minute flight from the Gulf of Aden. Additional Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier jump jets and attack helicopters followed to take on the AQAP force.
But then disaster struck again. One of the two Ospreys crashed on landing in Yemen. The Pentagon would later call it a “hard landing,” but the crash was serious enough that one of Harrier fighter jets bombed the crash site to destroy the plane to avoid any sensitive equipment falling into al Qaeda hands.
On the ground, the SEALs continued to battle. Though 14 AQAP fighters were killed, including what the U.S. claims were two leaders, al-Rimi was not at the target. In addition to Owens’ death and multiple American injuries, the unraveling of the mission also resulted in the death of at least 16 civilians, according to U.S. intelligence sources. Ten of those civilians were children under the age of 13, NBC News has determined from official documents verified by U.S. intelligence.
Within 50 minutes it was over. Ryan Owens was dead. At least five additional American servicemen were injured. The site exploitation was also compromised. Sources say because of the injuries, the destruction and the quick exit, the SEALs did not have enough time to collect documents and electronics.
‘There Was a Casualty’
NBC News went to Djibouti to further investigate the decisions made that night. Though we were not able to interview members of the SEAL Team or the Special Operations Task Force on camera, we did talk to Brig. Gen. David Furness, the commander of Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, a Marine Corps officer who oversees the region and includes Yemen in his “area of interest.”
Though he says he had no direct operational role, Furness says he closely monitored the mission that night.
He called what happened “complicated.”
“There was a casualty.”
“I can tell you … that they did everything in their power to prevent loss of life for innocent civilians,” said Furness. But, he said, “[Combat is] a dirty business, especially up close and personal on missions like were performed that night in Yemen.”
Related: No Significant Intelligence Gathered in Yemen Raid
Was the mission crucial? How was it compromised? What was the value of the intelligence gathered at the site?
Sources differ, and Gen. Furness demurred in talking about specifics. It’s clear though,that whatever happened in Yemen might have been chalked up to the tragedy and fog of war had it not been for what happened in Washington afterward..
Within hours of the Yemen mission, White House spokesman Sean Spicer was at the podium declaring the raid a great success.
“This weekend we carried out a very successful raid against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Spicer said the morning of Jan. 30.
He doubled down the next day. “Obviously, we recovered a tremendous amount of information,” said Spicer on Jan. 31.
And then Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was briefed on the mission He went public to challenge the administration’s characterization.
“When you lose a $75 million airplane and, more importantly, an American … life is lost and [there are] wounded I don’t believe that you can call it a success,” the Arizona Republican told NBC News.
The White House shot back.
“I think anybody who, who undermines the success of that raid …owes an apology and a disservice to the life of Chief Owens,” Spicer offered.
Watching at home in Florida, Bill Owens grew disgusted.
“Don’t hide behind the death of my son to try and justify that this raid was a success,” he told NBC News. “Because it wasn’t.”
Little official information was forthcoming on the mission or Ryan’s death.
On Monday, Feb. 27, NBC Nightly News reported that the Yemen raid had “yielded no significant intelligence.”
The next morning, President Trump appeared on Fox and Friends, offering an odd description for a mission that he as commander-in-chief had approved.
“Well this was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something that was, you know, just, they wanted to do,” Trump said.
McCain Explains Why He Wouldn’t Label Yemen Raid A Success 0:26
“They explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. My generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I would, I believe,” he added.
“And they lost Ryan.”
“That’s it in a nutshell,” said Bill Owens, recalling the President’s statement that morning, the morning of his address to Congress and tribute to Ryan. “He evidently doesn’t feel responsibility, even though he’s the one that signed off on it and initiated the action. So it kind of speaks for itself. ”
Bill Owens said that he is not “a supporter” of the President. But he also said that “it’s much bigger than politics. … I want to know how [a similar disaster] can be prevented in the future.”
On March 9, a little over a week after the President spoke about the Yemen raid on Fox and Friends and before Congress , the U.S. military commander for the entire Middle East testified at a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel took responsibility for the Yemen raid, and spoke bluntly.
Pres. Trump Blames Yemen Mission on Obama Administration, Generals 1:37
“I accept the responsibility for this. We lost a lot on this operation. We lost a valued operator, we had people wounded, we caused civilian casualties, we lost an expensive aircraft…”
But Votel also maintained, like the Pentagon and the administration, that valuable intelligence was gathered.
NBC News interviewed Republican Rep. Scott Taylor of Virginia, himself a former Navy SEAL, to put the raid and the controversy into perspective. “Any Gold Star family member,” Taylor said, that is, an American family that has lost a loved one in combat, has the right to speak up and ask questions. “They can say whatever they want … you know … I mean … They have earned that right.”
Taylor believes the Yemen raid provides the nation an opportunity to look at a critical issue.
“What the American people need to know and need to be engaged in is a debate on how we’re using [our] forces” in the war on terror.
“I believe that there’s been sort of an over-use of Special Forces in the past decade,” Taylor said.
Two of the most important questions that came from NBC News’ multi-month investigation are: Why was Ryan Owens’ mission launched nine days after President Trump took office, and what did the mission achieve in terms of weakening al Qaeda?
Bill Owens merely wants straight answers.
The assurances he’s gotten from Washington — that the SEALs gathered intelligence that will save American lives in the future — don’t put his mind at peace.
“That’s not credible,” he said. “Let’s look at it for what it was. Tell the truth.”
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LAUDERDALE-BY-THE-SEA, FLORIDA — Surely the most memorable moment from PresidentTrump’s first address to a joint session of Congress, and to the nation, came in his tribute to Ryan Owens, a fallen Navy SEAL. “Ryan died as he lived, a warrior and …
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