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Pentagon Pressured For Details on Niger10/20 05:43

   Members of Congress are demanding answers two weeks after an ambush in the 
African nation of Niger killed four U.S. soldiers, with one top lawmaker even 
threatening subpoenas. 

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Members of Congress are demanding answers two weeks after 
an ambush in the African nation of Niger killed four U.S. soldiers, with one 
top lawmaker even threatening subpoenas. The White House defended the slow pace 
of information, saying an investigation would eventually offer clarity about a 
tragedy that has morphed into a political dispute in the United States.

   Among the unresolved inquiries: Why were the Americans apparently caught by 
surprise? Why did it take two additional days to recover one of the four bodies 
after the shooting stopped? Was the Islamic State responsible?

   The confusion over what happened in a remote corner of Niger, where few 
Americans travel, has increasingly dogged President Donald Trump, who was 
silent about the deaths for more than a week.

   Asked why, Trump on Monday turned the topic into a political tussle by 
crediting himself with doing more to honor the dead and console their families 
than any of his predecessors. His subsequent boast that he reaches out 
personally to all families of the fallen was contradicted by interviews with 
family members, some of whom had not heard from Trump at all.

   And then the aunt of an Army sergeant killed in Niger, who raised the 
soldier as her son, said Wednesday that Trump had shown "disrespect" to the 
soldier's loved ones as he telephoned to extend condolences while they were 
driving to the Miami airport to receive his body. Sgt. La David Johnson was one 
of the four Americans killed Oct. 4 in southwest Niger; Trump called the 
families of all four Tuesday.

   In an extraordinary White House briefing, John Kelly, the former Marine 
general who is Trump's chief of staff, described himself as "stunned" and 
"brokenhearted" by the criticism of Trump. He also invoked his son serving in 
Iraq to explain why American soldiers operate in dangerous parts of the world, 
saying their efforts to train local forces mean the U.S. doesn't have to 
undertake large-scale invasions of its own. Kelly's other son, Robert, was 
killed in combat in Afghanistan seven years ago.

   The deadly ambush in Niger occurred as Islamic militants on motorcycles, 
toting rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, seized on a U.S. 
convoy and shattered the windows of their unarmored trucks. In addition to 
those killed, two Americans were wounded. No extremist group has claimed 
responsibility.

   The attack is under official military investigation, as is normal for a 
deadly incident.

   What is abnormal, according to Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of 
the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the Trump administration's slow 
response to requests for information. He said Thursday it may take a subpoena 
to shake loose more information.

   "They are not forthcoming with that information," McCain told reporters.

   Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign 
Relations Committee, said members of Congress have been provided with some 
information about the attack, "but not what we should."

   At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pushed back, saying it 
naturally takes time to verify information about a combat engagement. He 
promised to provide accurate information as soon as it's available, but offered 
no timetable.

   "The loss of our troops is under investigation," he said. "We in the 
Department of Defense like to know what we're talking about before we talk."

   Mattis did not offer details about the circumstances under which the 
Americans were traveling but said contact with hostile forces had been 
"considered unlikely."

   That would explain why the Americans, who were traveling in unarmored 
vehicles with Nigerien counterparts, lacked access to medical support and had 
no immediate air cover, although Mattis said French aircraft were called to the 
scene quickly. He said contract aircraft flew out the bodies of three Americans 
shortly after the firefight. Local Nigeriens found Johnson's body and returned 
it Oct. 6.

   It's not clear why Johnson was not found with the three others Oct. 4.

   Dana W. White, a spokeswoman for Mattis, said Johnson had become 
"separated." Speaking at a news conference with her, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, 
director of the Joint Staff, said he knew more about what had happened to 
Johnson but was not willing to share it. He said U.S., Nigerien and French 
forces remained in the area searching for Johnson until he was found, so it 
would be wrong to say he was "left behind."

   Mattis said the U.S. has about 1,000 troops in that part of Africa to 
support a French-led mission to disrupt and destroy extremist elements. He said 
the U.S. provides aerial refueling, intelligence and reconnaissance support, 
and ground troops to engage with local leaders.

   "In this specific case, contact (with hostile forces) was considered 
unlikely, but the reason we had U.S. Army soldiers there and not the Peace 
Corps, it's because we carry guns."

   McKenzie said last week that U.S. troops in that area had done 29 similar 
missions over the previous six months without encountering enemy forces.

   Underlining how the attack and its response have rattled the White House 
this week, Trump's national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, also 
joined the defense. He said Thursday that it would be wrong for the Pentagon to 
provide details of the tragedy before it had fully verified them in the course 
of an in-depth investigation.

   "Answers that are provided, oftentimes, short of that full investigation, 
turn out in retrospect to have been inaccurate and just cause more confusion," 
McMaster said.

   Mattis described the mission being performed by the U.S. troops in Niger as 
a classic example of training that Army Green Berets have performed worldwide 
for decades, usually with no publicity. Known in military parlance as "foreign 
internal defense," the mission is to help local militaries improve their 
fighting skills and techniques. It requires a cultural acuity for which U.S. 
special operations troops are known.  


(KA)

 
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