Congressional committees are planning to hold public hearings to question military officials after receiving an executive summary of the Pentagon’s report into the October 2017 attack that killed four US soldiers during an operation in Niger.
Several sources familiar with the findings of the report say it raises fundamental questions about whether the mission was undertaken with proper authorization and preparation. It is expected to include recommendations and referrals to other parts of the military, including the Army. The Army could then conduct further investigations leading to potential reprimands over how the mission was carried out, according to defense officials.
Congressional sources have told CNN that the attack underscores concerns that US troops are operating in remote areas of Africa without sufficient air capability to evacuate dead and wounded troops, and insufficient overhead reconnaissance.
The executive summary, which runs at over 200 pages, represents just a fraction of the complete report which is approximately 6,000 pages in length and includes interviews with key personnel involved in the mission, the decision-making leading up to it and the immediate actions in the aftermath.
As of Tuesday, at least one of the four families of the soldiers killed had received a full briefing on the report. The Pentagon was hoping to finish family briefings as quickly as possible, then brief Congress, and after that, brief the media.
Both the House Oversight, Government Reform and Armed Services committees are initially expected to hold hearings on what went wrong.
Several sources say the indications are that proper procedures were not followed for authorizing the mission to go after a high-value target. Multiple sources CNN spoke to did not know if that had any direct impact on the team being ambushed by more than 50 ISIS affiliated fighters, an attack that took place while the combined US Nigerien team was returning back to their base. Four Americans lost their lives in the attack, Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright and Sgt. La David T. Johnson. One official said there were several “points of failure” in the entire effort that contributed to the team being ambushed.
The Niger mission was originally described to reporters as an effort by the Green Beret-led team to help train and advise local Nigerien forces. US forces in Niger routinely conduct such missions. However, several weeks ago, officials told CNN that the initial account of what happened was not accurate.
The report is expected to detail that an Army captain who was filling in for another more senior officer on leave ordered the team to go after a local ISIS operative, Doundoun Cheffou, considered to be a high-value target in the area, rather than conduct its planned mission to help train and advise local forces in the field. At one point prior to going out in the field, the team was tasked with providing backup to another US military unit that was authorized to conduct such high-value target missions. However, that mission was never green lit.
The report is expected to say that a different captain who was part of the team questioned those orders, suggesting the team was not prepared or equipped to conduct the mission. In the Army, the rank of captain denotes a relatively junior officer.
The team lacked air support and a complete intelligence picture of the operating environment because it was only resourced for the advisory mission and not the unapproved higher risk mission.
US intelligence assessed that the troops taking part in that advisory mission were unlikely to run into opposition. For high-risk, high-value target missions, air support is supposed to be available should an evacuation be necessary along with constant surveillance from assets like drones.
The report is also expected to detail that once the team left its camp, the mission changed more than once, shifting back at some point to a significantly less dangerous mission more in line with the team’s original authorized and approved advisory operation. The team wound up doing some advisory work with local Nigerien forces, but was also tasked with searching a deserted ISIS camp that the US knew to be abandoned.
During the firefight, the 12-member team became overwhelmed by the ISIS fighters, and was ordered via radio by senior officers in another location to try to leave the area. As previously reported, the body of Johnson was found more than a mile away from the main ambush area. It is believed he was trying continue fighting as best he could while following the order to get out of the ambush. Johnson was found with fatal wounds in a pattern suggesting he stood his ground to fight back, officials say. Johnson’s distance from the original ambush point contributed to his body not being found for 48 hours officials said.