The Pentagon says Navy SEALs scooped up laptops, hard drives and cell phones in last month's Yemen raid, but multiple U.S. officials told NBC News that none of the intelligence gleaned from the operation so far has proven actionable or vital — contrary to what President Trump said in his speech to Congress Tuesday.
In a dramatic moment before a joint session of Congress, Trump introduced Carryn Owens, the widow of Senior Chief William "Ryan" Owens, the SEAL who lost his life in the Jan. 29 operation. Tears streamed down the widow’s face as the president praised her husband.
"I just spoke to General (James) Mattis," Trump said, referring to his defense secretary, "who reconfirmed that, and I quote, '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.'"
No one questions Owens' heroism and sacrifice. Ten current U.S. officials across the government who have been briefed on the details of the raid told NBC News that so far, no truly significant intelligence has emerged from the haul.
A U.S. intelligence official told NBC News that the Trump administration continues to call the mission a success because "they have become locked into a narrative that no evidence and no one in the Intelligence Community can corroborate." The official said that Sen. John McCain publicly disputed the success of the raid because the Defense Department has briefed many in Congress on what actually occurred during the raid.
Asked to compare the materials gathered in the 2011 SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden to the materials in the Yemen raid, the official said, "There is no comparison in either quality or quantity. There is no amazing laptop that we got, or thumb drive that reveals something big. No map to Zawahiri kind of thing."
"But it’s also important to note that we didn’t expect to gather anything like that. This was a house where some bad guys were supposed to be. We didn't get the guys we wanted and the ones who were there were clearly ready for us."
The Associated Press quoted a senior U.S. official as describing a three-page list of information gathered from the compound, including information on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's training techniques and targeting priorities. Pentagon officials confirmed that to NBC News, but other U.S. officials said the information on that list was neither actionable nor vital.
One senior Pentagon official described the information gathered as "de minimis," and as material the U.S. already knew about.
However, another U.S. official said the information contained hundreds of contact details from a variety of communications apps, suggesting possible links to the Europe and the U.S.
Questions continue to swirl around an operation in which the Navy SEALs lost the element of surprise and quickly found themselves in a major firefight.
The raid had first been proposed to the Obama administration, where officials viewed it as a significant — and risky — escalation. They decided to leave the decision about whether to launch to the Trump administration.
Owens' father, Bill, has questioned what was gained by putting U.S. boots on the ground in Yemen, and called for an investigation.
Some officials have said the most prominent Yemeni killed in the raid was Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab, who the Yemenis call a tribal leader, but the U.S. considered a terrorist. He was not a particularly valuable target, U.S. officials said, but they hoped intelligence at the site could lead them to other targets.
The military is conducting after-action reviews, and officials continue to examine the seized material.
"It's too soon to determine exactly what information has been gotten on this raid," said Ret. Army Col. Jack Jacobs, a Medal of Honor recipient and NBC News military analyst. "Invariably, the military does a thorough investigation of everything from start to finish, and in good time we'll hear how successful it really was."