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Pentagon probe into deadly Niger attack finds mistakes, but recommends no punishment

Myeshia Johnson is presented with the U.S. flag that was draped over the casket of her husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, during his burial service at Fred Hunter's Hollywood Memorial Gardens in Hollywood, Fla., on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/TNS)
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A Pentagon investigation into an ambush that killed four U.S. soldiers in Niger in October found that two officers in charge misinformed higher-ups about the danger of the mission, yet no punishment was recommended against them, according to officials familiar with the still-unreleased report on the findings.

Two Army captains — one in charge of the 12-man unit targeted in the ambush and another back at headquarters — did not disclose in paperwork before the mission that it was more than a routine reconnaissance, that the soldiers were seeking to capture the leader of an Islamic State affiliate involved in kidnapping an American aid worker, according to the officials briefed on the investigation findings.

The report recommended against taking disciplinary action against the two officers, however, because the officers believed they had authority to carry out the capture-or-kill mission without approval, the officials said.

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis has reviewed the report on the investigation by Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier, chief of staff of U.S. Africa Command, and is expected to accept the conclusions, officials said.

The deadly firefight was caused by an “aggressive, opportunistic enemy,” which attacked the team of U.S. and Nigerien soldiers after they stopped for water at the remote village of Tongo Tongo — not by the failure to follow proper procedure, according to Rep. Steve Russell, an Oklahoma Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee who was briefed Monday on the findings.

The two officers “were clearly within the authorities they believed they possessed,” said Russell, who is a former Army officer. “The ambush at Tongo Tongo could have happened whether they did that or not.”

Families of the deceased soldiers — Sgt. La David T. Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Fla.; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wash.; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga. — have been briefed on the report, which is expected to be made public this week.

Johnson initially was unaccounted for, and his body wasn’t found until after a two-day search, and then by Nigerien villagers.

The attack caused a public relations furor for the White House after President Donald Trump took several days to reach out to the soldiers’ families and then was accused of making insensitive remarks to Johnson’s widow by a Democratic congresswoman from Florida who is a friend of the Johnson family and claimed to have overheard his remarks. The White House denied that Trump was disrespectful.

The ambush also raised questions about whether U.S. forces in Saharan Africa were adequately equipped to operate in the vast areas where they were, at a time when Islamic militants had become increasingly aggressive near Niger’s border with Mali.

Before leaving their base near the Nigerien capital of Niamey on Oct. 3, the dozen-man special operations team had reported that they would be conducting reconnaissance and meeting with tribal leaders.

Their real mission, aided by 30 Nigerien soldiers who joined the convoy of unarmored vehicles, was to search for Doundou Chefou, the leader of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, the officials said. Some details from the Pentagon report were first reported by NBC News.

While the mission was underway, the team was ordered by superiors to assist a separate U.S. team sent to search for Chefou by helicopter. Both groups of soldiers — one in the air and one on the ground — were supposed to converge on a site in northern Niger where Chefou had been reported.

Bad weather forced cancellation of the team moving by helicopter, leaving only the team from Niamey to pursue Chefou. They found the site deserted, according to Russell.

The ambush occurred hours later, as the unit drove back to Niamey. A large group of militants who happened to be near Tongo Tongo attacked the U.S. and Nigerien soldiers as they were leaving the village, officials said

The attackers eventually were driven off, after the U.S. team radioed that they were under attack and a French Mirage fighter who rushed to the scene conducted several low-level passes, scaring off the militants. The dead and wounded — except for Johnson — were evacuated by a helicopter flown by civilian contract pilots, officials said.

The U.S. soldiers had no reason to expect an attack at the village and no evidence that the militants who carried out the attack were ordered to do so by Chefou, Russell said.

He added, “The single greatest factor was an aggressive, opportunistic enemy.”

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© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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