“The reality is that when Joe Biden was vice president, we had an opportunity to save Kayla Mueller. It breaks my heart to reflect on it, but the military came into the Oval Office, presented a plan. They said they knew where Kayla was. Baghdadi had held her for 18 months, abused her mercilessly before they killed her. But when Joe Biden was vice president, they hesitated for a month. And when armed forces finally went in, it was clear she’d been moved two days earlier.”
These remarks jumped out at us during the debate, but we needed to take some time to check the timeline. The implication in Pence’s remarks is that President Barack Obama took a month to act on information that might have saved Kayla Mueller, a humanitarian worker held hostage and sexually abused by the Islamic State terrorist group: “The military came into the Oval Office, presented a plan. … They hesitated a month.” (Pence slips in a mention of Joe Biden, but there is no indication he was significantly involved in the decision-making.)
Mueller’s parents were among Pence’s guests at the debate, so this clearly was not a spur-of-the-moment comment but an attack crafted well in advance. But is this really what happened?
The most comprehensive report on the efforts to save Mueller and three other hostages — James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig — was written by our colleague Karen DeYoung in an article titled “The anatomy of a failed hostage rescue deep in Islamic State territory.”
She wrote that a “bold rescue plan” to save four Americans was sent to the White House for approval on June 26, 2014. She then described what happened.
Senior representatives from all national security departments and agencies convened at the White House early on Friday, June 27. Later that day, their Cabinet-level principals met to examine the plan so that it could be presented to the president with all questions answered and risks assessed.
On Saturday, it was forwarded to Obama, with a recommendation for approval, by his top national security team. “I frankly expected the president to say, being presented with such a high-risk, complex operation, okay, thank you, let me sleep on it,” said a senior official who was present at the meeting in the White House Situation Room. But Obama signed off before the meeting ended.
So that sounds considerably less than one month. Obama approved the plan in the same Situation Room (not Oval Office) meeting at which he first heard about it.
Of course, it then takes time to get assets in place. Jordanian officials “needed to be briefed on the final plan and agree to it,” DeYoung wrote. “Special Operations forces assigned to the mission had to be gathered at their home base at Fort Bragg, N.C., and transported to the Middle East. Aircraft had to be positioned to carry the rescuers in and out, participate in the diversions and conduct overhead surveillance while the operation was underway. The weather and phases of the moon had to be studied, to ensure cover of darkness.”
The troops landed on July 3. But they were too late. “The landing took place almost exactly a week later,” DeYoung wrote, referring to Obama’s “go” order. “Yet the commandos who rushed through gunfire into the makeshift prison found only half-eaten meals and a wisp of hair. The hostages had been there. But they were gone.”
Obama publicly said the hostages might have been moved a day or two earlier. DeYoung wrote that military officials were uncertain, thinking they could have been moved a week or more earlier.
Over the ensuing months, each of the hostages was killed by the terrorist group, with Mueller the last confirmed death in February 2015.
DeYoung noted that there was internal frustration at the Pentagon in how long it took to get the plan through the bureaucracy for Obama’s approval.
“Some of those who worked on the rescue mission say they think the White House itself is at least partly to blame for the failure. They charge that there were delays in bringing the plan to Obama’s desk and that, as a result, the rescuers missed the hostages by a matter of days, or even hours,” she wrote. “In interviews with The Washington Post and in other published accounts, a number of operational-level U.S. intelligence and military officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to voice criticism of higher-ups, have said their disappointment at the failure of the mission was mixed with frustration over the decision process.”
We asked Pence’s office and the Trump campaign for an explanation for Pence’s claim that it took Obama a month to authorize a mission. They sent several other articles or timelines. Let’s do an assessment of several key ones.
The Sunday Times, Aug. 24, 2014: “Pentagon sources said Foley and the others might well have been rescued but Obama, concerned about the ramifications of US troops being killed or captured in Syria, took too long to authorise the mission. Anthony Shaffer, a former lieutenant-colonel in US military intelligence who worked on covert operations, said: ‘I’m told it was almost a 30-day delay from when they said they wanted to go to when he finally gave the green light. They were ready to go in June to grab the guy [Foley] and they weren’t permitted.’ ”
Analysis: The sourcing here is pretty flimsy. The person quoted is not directly involved in the U.S. government, and he appears to be reporting at best second- or third-hand information.
The Daily Beast, Feb. 12, 2015: “The U.S. government obtained intelligence on the possible location of American captives held by ISIS in Syria last year, but Obama administration officials waited nearly a month to launch a rescue mission because of concerns that the intelligence wasn’t conclusive and some of it had come from a foreign service.”
Analysis: This gets us closer to the reason for a possible delay within the bureaucracy: Some people in the U.S. government thought the intelligence was not solid enough. But it does not lay the blame on Obama. (Note: This report was denied at the time by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)
ABC News timeline, Aug. 24, 2016: “Mid-May or Early June 2014: The U.S. military’s elite Joint Special Operations Command submits a concept of operations to the Obama administration for a daring clandestine raid into Syria to rescue all the Western hostages held by ISIS. The intelligence on where the hostages are was provided by a foreign intelligence partner and the White House doesn’t give the green light, hoping to confirm and bolster the foreign intelligence before sending in troops, according to a counterterrorism official.”
Analysis: This echoes the Daily Beast reporting that there was an interest in making sure the intelligence was confirmed before launching a rescue mission. It mentions “the White House,” which could be any number of people beneath the president. Just because there was a “concept of operations” does not mean there was a detailed rescue plan. The main source appears to be “a counterterrorism official,” but the report does not indicate how senior this person is (or even if it is a U.S. official).
Reading between the lines, a common thread of these reports is that a foreign intelligence service thought it had provided actionable intelligence and did not understand why U.S. officials did not act more quickly. But these reports are vague on the nature of the intelligence.
DeYoung’s report is more detailed on the information that led to the attempted rescue. She reported that Danish photojournalist Daniel Rye Ottosen was “released from a militant safe house near the Turkish border on June 19, and on June 22, FBI agents interviewed him in Denmark. Ottosen helped solidify the information learned from the other released hostages. He had been with all four of the Americans just days before and provided a description of the prison site so exact that planners had enough certainty of where it was, and what the rescuers would encounter when they touched down, that the plan began to move up the military chain of command.”
She added: “The Central Command signed off, despite ongoing doubts about the quality of the intelligence, the large number of troops and other assets involved, and the fact that Syria was unknown territory, administration officials said. From the Central Command, it went to the Joint Staff, and then to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who signed it and sent it to the White House.”
In other words, the final piece of information needed to launch a mission was obtained only four days before the plan was sent to the White House — and quickly approved by Obama.
Obama White House officials involved in the rescue told The Fact Checker they remain mystified about where and how the “one-month” narrative emerged. “We were frustrated that this story line had gotten out there,” said one former senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the mission has become an election-year issue. Inside the White House, it was “the fastest presentation to decision I had ever seen.”
Another former White House official said that if a month referred to when a possible lead on a compound was first received, that would be “actually pretty fast” to craft a rescue mission. “They develop the information, and they simultaneously plan an operation to bring to the president for a decision,” he said. “That particular operation was incredibly complicated because it was a large force being sent pretty deep into a part of Syria where we had no military operations.”
“We were moving this about as fast as we could, given the process” and the difficulty and risk of the mission, a senior military official closely familiar with the operation said. As for the White House, “I would never characterize them as sitting on it.”
Nevertheless, DeYoung quoted family members who were angry at the Obama administration for acting too slowly to deal with the hostage situation, even appearing to neglect the cases. Obama himself acknowledged that the administration had handled relations with families poorly. In June 2015, he announced a policy overhaul that included allowing the U.S. government to negotiate with hostage takers, eliminating threats of criminal prosecution of families who pay ransoms and reorganizing and centralizing the government’s hostage recovery efforts.
The Pinocchio Test
Pence has relied on news articles that suggest a narrative of a one-month delay, though it appears to be more of a Pentagon or intelligence issue. There is no evidence that the military presented the plan to the “Oval Office” and no action was taken by Obama for a month. Moreover, Pence ignored the most detailed report on the rescue mission, which states that Obama approved the plan as soon as it was presented to him in the Situation Room.
Obviously, the buck stops with the president. Obama was responsible for the bureaucracy beneath him that may have prevented a plan from being presented more quickly — and which had such poor relations with hostages’ families that Obama eventually decided to overhaul policies. However, according to DeYoung’s report, the intelligence that clinched the decision to go was received only four days before the request to approve a mission was received at the White House.
Pence could have framed this more accurately by focusing on the delays and frustrations felt by Mueller’s family. Instead, he choose to misleadingly suggest Obama did not act on the military’s plan for a month after it was presented to him. Whatever delays took place appear to have happened before Obama learned of the proposed rescue. Pence earns Three Pinocchios.
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