Lawmakers and former defense officials are questioning why the Pentagon for months did not reveal the true mission of the Army special operations team involved in a deadly ambush last year in Niger.
The Pentagon confirmed for the first time Thursday that the U.S. team involved in the Oct. 4 firefight that killed four American troops initially embarked on a kill-or-capture operation, not a low-risk advising mission as previously portrayed.
In a summary of its findings on the deadly operation, U.S. Africa Command said the team involved in the firefight filed paperwork seeking approval from higher command that mischaracterized the true nature of their task.
“What little information they provided [in the summary] certainly would give one reason to believe that there’s an accountability failure here,” said retired Col. Don Christensen, a former Air Force chief prosecutor. “When they fail to provide information it appears like they’re covering up and protecting the people at the top.”
The Pentagon this week released to the public an eight-page summary of its findings on the Niger operation, while sending the full 180-page classified report to Congress.
But even after receiving a closed-door briefing on the findings, some lawmakers are continuing to raise questions about broader operations in Africa in the wake of the Niger incident.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) noted that while the U.S. troops were said to be on a limited “train and equip” mission, “it was actually a ‘kill or capture’ combat mission.”
Asked directly if he thinks the military was hiding from Congress what it was doing, Kaine responded, “Yeah.”
The Pentagon is insisting it was not deliberating shrouding the true nature of the operation after the troops in the ambush were portrayed as being caught off guard and outnumbered by a far -equipped enemy.
The evidence “does not indicate” the leaders purposely lied, lead investigating officer Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier told reporters Thursday at a Pentagon briefing. Rather, Cloutier said, “it was a lack of attention to detail” that led to a mix-up.
Officials said the planning document submitted for the original mission, cut and pasted from a previous document, described the October mission as a daylong trip to meet with tribal elders. The team leader and the commander directly above him “inaccurately characterized the nature of the mission,” a summary of the report reads.
The special forces team, in fact, was embarking on a mission to assist Nigerien forces in the hunt for a high-ranking Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant linked to the kidnapping of a U.S. aid worker.
The true mission “was not approved at the proper level of command,” according to the Pentagon, and when the team departed on their initial operation, no higher command was aware that the mission sought to find and possibly capture a key member of ISIS.
The Pentagon summary, which does not name who the commanders are, found that the mission was susceptible to attack from the start because the misleading document “contributed to a general lack of situational awareness and command oversight at every echelon.”
When the ISIS militant was not found, the troops were ultimately redirected on a mission to gather intelligence on the terrorist, which they completed before stopping near the village of Tongo Tongo to get water.
The group then conducted an impromptu meeting with village leaders and were ambushed after leaving.
Army Sgt. La David Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, as well as four Nigerien soldiers, were killed in the resulting firefight that lasted than an hour.
“The soldiers didn’t seem to have intelligence that had caught up to the fact that the nature of the threat evolved,” Alice Hunt Friend, a former special adviser and principal director for African Affairs at the Pentagon, told The Hill.
Friend, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said after reading the eight-page summary that she also still had questions as to why the team was under-equipped.
“I read it and sort of still feel like I don’t have all the pieces that make it make sense,” she said.
While the report acknowledged multiple “individual, organizational, and institutional failures,” the report raised eyebrows over the apparent lack of any recommended disciplinary actions.
Africa Command head Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said Thursday the report’s findings “call out individuals for certain activities,” but Special Operations Command “will have the responsibility for taking appropriate action to ensure accountability.”
“We don’t recommend punishment, we recommend appropriate action,” he said.
Arnold Wright, the father of Staff Sgt. Wright, told The New York Times he was frustrated with much of the investigation being kept classified and suggested that top officials were trying to shield themselves from scrutiny.
“They had their story, and they’re going to stick to it,” Wright said. “It doesn’t really matter what I’ve got to say. They did what they did for political reasons. I understand it, but it doesn’t mean it’s right.”
The summary also did not note that Cloutier, the lead investigating officer for the Niger incident, is also a senior official in the command he investigated. Cloutier is Africom’s chief of staff.
Christensen said it was not out of the ordinary for someone to be within the same command they’re investigating, but noted that it could also create problems.
“The person doing the investigation is working for the people who very well could be complicit in what happened themselves,” he said. “The investigation tends to focus downwards rather than upwards and that’s one of the weaknesses.”
Friend, meanwhile, said there is merit in an organization auditing itself, but couldn’t say why Africa Command didn’t also contact outside organizations for the investigation.
Waldhauser said Thursday that he had started a review to correct shortfalls in training, procedures and planning in Africa, adding that “we are now far prudent in our missions.”
He also emphasized that Africa Command had bolstered intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the wake of the deadly mission.
“We have beefed up a lot of things,” he said.
A spokesman for Special Operations Command, meanwhile, said the command has begun “a line-by-line review of the investigation.”
“We are totally committed to resolving every issue addressed in the report and fully complying with … guidance,” Capt. Jason Salata said in a statement.