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Security Roundup: Yemen Raid; National Security Council Shakeup


We're going to turn now to a couple other big national security stories we're thinking through this morning.

First, the U.S. raid against al-Qaida operatives in Yemen - it left one American service member dead. President Donald Trump also issued an order asking for a new plan to defeat ISIS. And he wants to change the way the administration makes major decisions on national security - more specifically, who gets to make them. So we're going to bring in NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman to help us unpack all this.

Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's start with Yemen. What can you tell us about the operation?

BOWMAN: Well, Rachel, there was a special operations raid into a village being used by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. I'm told the raid had been planned for a while with Yemeni forces before Trump took office, but he authorized it. The American troops were after what they call a target of opportunity, and the forces came under attack. Now, another aircraft came in to help after they took casualties. It was a V-22 Osprey, which crash landed. The troops got away but destroyed their aircraft to keep it from being seized.

Now, local Yemenis say dozens of civilians were killed in this raid, including eight children. The Pentagon says they're investigating. And now our colleague Alice Fordham talked with the father of the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki. He said his granddaughter died in this raid. And of course, his son was killed in a U.S. drone strike back in 2011.

MARTIN: So let's stay with that for a moment. We're used to hearing from the U.S., the Obama administration in particular - they were saying all the time we work really hard to protect civilians who might get caught in these military operations. Are you hearing any indication that that might be changing?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't have enough information about what happened in this case. But that is what Obama tried to do, prevent civilian casualties. And he placed restrictions on airstrikes. But Trump does want to relax some of those restrictions in places like Yemen and also Libya as well as Iraq and Syria. And the president has asked for plans to accelerate the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon is looking at that - more weapons for example, more trainers and also, perhaps, placing U.S. troops closer to front-line combat. And as part of all of this, it's more likely you'll see additional airstrikes as well. And consequently, you could see more U.S. and civilian casualties.

MARTIN: Let's get to the shake-up at the NSC - this is the National Security Council. This is the group of national security advisers the president relies on to make really top decisions. President Trump has made an unusual choice. He's decided that he wants his senior adviser Steve Bannon to have a seat at that table.

Why is that significant?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, the National Security Council has been around for some 70 years. And it includes a president, vice president, secretary of state and defense, the most senior people approved by the Senate. Trump's order says that his personal strategist, Steve Bannon, is going to be on this NSC. He's a retired naval officer. But most of his career, he's run a media company. In the past, presidents have tried to keep the national security decision-making separate from politics. You remember Karl Rove who was George W. Bush's top aide in politics - he was not part of the NSC.


BOWMAN: The same with Barack Obama's David Axelrod. So this is highly unusual.

MARTIN: And it's not just Steve Bannon gets a seat at the table permanently but also the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America's top military adviser and the director of National Intelligence are no longer guaranteed a spot.

BOWMAN: That's right. And the headlines over the weekend said they'd been kicked off the NSC. That's not exactly right. You're right, the director of National Intelligence, the chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff - what the White House has done is said they'll attend meetings dealing with issues, quote, "pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise."

Now that's unusual because one would think anything that the National Security discusses...

MARTIN: That's their thing.

BOWMAN: Exactly.

MARTIN: That's what they know about.

BOWMAN: You would have that director of National Intelligence and the top military adviser. So this is very unusual - a lot of people scratching their heads over this and a lot of complaints from the likes of Senator John McCain and former Defense Secretary Bob Gates.

MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman walking us through the changes at the National Security Council.

Hey, Tom, thank you so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.