WASHINGTON, D.C. — Even as the humanitarian crisis precipitated by Saudi Arabia’s more-than-three-year war in Yemen has deepened, the Pentagon earlier this year launched a new classified operation to support the kingdom’s military operations there, according to a Defense Department document that appears to have been posted online inadvertently.
The existence of the new classified operation, code-named Yukon Journey, was partially revealed in a Defense Department inspector general report posted online earlier this month, which noted that “the Secretary of Defense designated three new named contingency operations: Operation Yukon Journey, and operations in Northwest Africa and East Africa.”
The three operations, which focus on al-Qaida and ISIS, are classified, the report notes, and the Pentagon has not publicly disclosed their location beyond saying they are in the Middle East and Africa.
But another document posted earlier this year on a Pentagon-affiliated website identifies Yukon Journey as a Central Command operation supporting the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Partner Nations in Yemen.”
The existence of a classified operation in Yemen raises the possibility that even as the Pentagon scales back unclassified operations, such as refueling Saudi-led coalition aircraft, covert support, to include possible U.S. special forces on the ground, could continue.
The document, marked for official use only, was posted on the All Partners Access Network, an unclassified website the Defense Department uses to share information with NGOs and humanitarian organizations.
Though it’s unclear what type of support Yukon Journey provides to Saudi Arabia, it has long been suspected that the Defense Department has special operations forces on the ground in Yemen, where the Saudis are fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
“My guess — and purely a guess — is it’s something to do with going after Houthi ballistic missiles,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, tells Yahoo News. “That’s probably the thing the administration worries about the most, that the Houthis’ ballistic missile will cause a mass casualty event in Saudi Arabia or the UAE.”
Riedel pointed to previous reports of special forces assisting in the hunt for ballistic missiles. “My guess is that’s some part of that, but there may be some more aggressive part of it. Maybe operations inside Yemen, instead of just along the border,” he said.
U.S. Central Command declined to answer questions on Yukon Journey or confirm its location.
“The United States is currently providing limited support to the coalition in the form of logistical assistance (to include air-to-air refueling), intelligence sharing, best practices and other advisory support,” a spokesperson for the command wrote when asked about current unclassified support.
The Defense Department inspector general also declined to confirm that Yukon Journey was for support to the Saudi coalition in Yemen.
It “is indeed accurate to say that the location of Operation Youkon [sic] Journey is classified and is therefore not being discussed publicly,” a spokesperson for the inspector general wrote.
But the Pentagon’s refusal to name the location of operations appeared to bother the Pentagon’s top watchdog. The Pentagon “did not answer the question as to why it was necessary to designate these existing counterterrorism campaigns as overseas contingency operations or what benefits were conveyed with the overseas contingency operation designation,” the inspector general’s report noted.
While the Defense Department argued that the operations were classified to protect U.S. forces operating abroad, the inspector general did not sound convinced, writing that it was “typical to classify such tactical information in any operation even when the overall location of an operation is publicly acknowledged.”
Steven Aftergood, who runs the Secrecy News blog of the Federation of American Scientists and was the first to call public attention to the Yukon Journey designation in the inspector general’s report, said he wasn’t surprised by the secrecy. “When it comes to classified operations, I think the default position is to withhold all information unless there is a requirement to disclose it or a foreseeable benefit from doing so,” he said.
There is, he pointed out, no specific requirement to disclose the location of the operations. “What’s interesting here — and actually somewhat encouraging — is that the DOD inspector general is not overly impressed by the military rationale for secrecy and seems determined to press for better answers,” he added.
The Trump administration has come under increasing pressure over its long-standing support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which began under former President Barack Obama. In September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified that the Saudis were attempting to minimize civilian casualties, a finding that allowed the U.S. military to continue refueling the coalition aircraft operating over Yemen.
But U.S. patience may be wearing thin amid mounting civilian casualties in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey at the hands of Saudi intelligence officers.
Despite the September certification, on Friday night, just hours after the Washington Post reported that the Defense Department was considering halting its refueling of the Saudi-led coalition’s aircraft, the Pentagon issued a formal statement confirming the decision. “We support the decision by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after consultations with the U.S. Government, to use the Coalition’s own military capabilities to conduct inflight refueling in support of its operations in Yemen,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said in a statement.
That decision would appear not to affect Yukon Journey’s classified activities, however.
While previous attempts in Congress to halt U.S. support have failed, opponents of the war believe they may now have the votes to take action on a resolution introduced in late September that would bring U.S. support for the coalition to an end.
“In the wake of the Khashoggi murder and the Pompeo certification, that left a lot of members upset,” said one congressional aide.
The prospect of classified operations in Yemen only deepens those concerns, according to the aide. “There’s also concern among some members that the Pentagon has not been fully transparent about our role in the war against the Houthis in Yemen,” the aide said.
While a Democratic House of Representatives in January could put even more pressure on the administration, opponents might seek action before then. The aide said that when Congress comes back into session, it will vote on a resolution introduced earlier this year by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) that would end U.S. involvement in the war.
When the bill was introduced in late September, before Khashoggi’s murder, it had high-level support among Democrats, but only a few Republicans supported it.
The calculus now may have changed, said Riedel, the former CIA official.
“I think they’ve got the votes now,” he said.
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