By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump insisted on Tuesday that a January raid in Yemen was a success and gathered vital intelligence against the al Qaeda affiliate there, despite questions raised about the effectiveness of the mission.
In his first nationally televised speech to Congress since taking office on Jan. 20, Trump acknowledged in the audience the widow of U.S. Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in the operation. Tears streamed down her face as she rose and lawmakers gave her a standing ovation.
The White House has pushed back against criticism of the raid, the first of its kind authorized by Trump as commander in chief. Owens’ father, in a newspaper interview over the weekend, called for an investigation.
Owens, 36, was killed in the raid on a branch of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, in al Bayda province on Jan. 29. U.S. officials said 14 militants were killed as well as some civilians. Medics at the scene said about 30 people, including 10 women and children, died.
Addressing a joint session of Congress, Trump said he had just spoken with Defense Secretary Mike Mattis “who reconfirmed that, and Iquote, ‘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’."
Though Trump provided no specifics, a senior U.S. official said earlier that the intelligence included the group’s explosives manufacturing, targeting, training and recruitment practices. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, stressed that such insight was particularly important given the threat that AQAP has long posed.
The group boasts one of the world's most feared bomb makers, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, and AQAP has been a persistent concern to the U.S. government since a 2009 attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
The White House had initially insisted that questioning the success of the raid did a disservice to the Navy SEAL who was killed. This followed Senator John McCain’s comment suggesting that the mission was not a complete success because of Owens’ death as well as the loss of an aircraft used in the mission.
Trump, in an interview with Fox News that aired on Tuesday morning, resisted accepting responsibility for authorizing the mission. He said the Pentagon’s planning for the operation started under his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and was something the generals "were looking at for a long time doing."
On Tuesday, Trump’s acknowledgment of Owens’ widow, Carryn Owens, in the audience drew the most sustained applause of the night.
"Ryan died as he lived - a warrior and a hero - battling against terrorism and securing our nation," Trump said.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)