WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has launched a rare out-of-chain of command review of the events leading up to a fatal ambush on U.S. forces in Niger in 2017 — the third attempt by officials to obtain the full story and decide on full punishments.
“The appointment of a senior investigator outside of this chain of command is standard practice to ensure that conflicts of interest – or the appearance of conflicts of interest – do not taint any investigation,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) told TMN on Friday.
“We are now two years removed from a preventable disaster that got people killed, and the Acting Secretary is still figuring out who needs to look into it,” he said. “It raises serious questions about the leadership at the Department of Defense that senior officers who may have had a hand in this disaster or who may have obstructed the investigation into it remain anonymous and unpunished while junior officers receive reprimands and the dead remain dead.”
Patrick Shanahan, the acting defense secretary, revealed the new review in testimony before Congress last week when quesited by Gallego. However, he did not detail the metrics of that review.
On Thursday, Charles Summers, the acting Pentagon spokesperson, confirmed to Pentagon reporters that “this is a new review.”
Summers acknowledged that the families of the slain U.S. soldiers were not informed of the new review before it was disclosed.
The Shanahan review will be led by Gen. Robert Brown, commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific — an area of command not tied to either Europe or Africa, where the decision making surrounding the fatal mission evolved, Pentagon officials said in interviews.
“I fear that he would not have initiated this review if I had not brought it up,” Gallego told TMN.
Sgt. La David Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright were killed in the October 2017 ambush. Four Niger soldiers also were killed and four other U.S. service personnel wounded.
Then-Defense Secretary James Mattis rejected the initial examinations into the ambush. He ordered new reviews that were to be completed by December but parts were still lingering when Mattisleft office on December 31, according to sources interviewed by TMN who are part of the process.
The initial review that left Mattis furious was led by Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander, U.S. Africa Command. It enraged Mattis as it blamed only junior officers for events.
The ambush occurred in the village of Tongo Tongo after the U.S. force was diverted from what was supposed to be a routine patrol and sent instead on a capture-or-kill raid ton an ISIS-affiliated militant. They were in the village for hours when the ambush occurred.
At one point Waldhauser was among those being considered for reprimand, several Pentagon officials said in interviews, but it was unlikely to occur. He is retiring this spring.
Among those reprimanded have been the commander of special operations forces in Africa, who was already set to retire; the leader of the Green Beret team that was ambushed; and a battalion commander based in Chad.
The deadly October. 4, 2017, day resulted from “the compounding impact of tactical and operational decisions” for the fatal ambush and “no single failure or deficiency,” according to the eight-page unclassified report released in spring 2018.
The report also said false paperwork was filed to achieve approval of the mission.
More than a dozen logistical changes in mission operations in Africa have been implemented since the ambush, Pentagon officials previously said.