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