Defense

Senators demand info on deadly Niger ambush

Nearly two weeks after four Green Berets were killed in an ambush, top senators are demanding the Trump administration provide Congress with more information on the first deadly attack on U.S. troops in Niger.

On Tuesday, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee both said the Trump administration has not provided them with enough information on the attack.

Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) even went so far as to say the Obama administration - which he repeatedly slammed as weak on defense - was better at working with him.

Asked by The Hill whether the administration has been forthcoming with information on Niger, McCain said "no."

"I had a better working relationship, as far as information back and forth, with [President Obama's Defense secretary] Ash Carter than I do with an old friend of 20 years," McCain said.

Asked whether the "old friend" was Defense Secretary James Mattis, McCain said "yes," though he said the statement also extends to Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster.

"I think they had this idea that once Trump won that we are a unicameral government," McCain said.

At issue is an Oct. 4 attack on a joint patrol of about a dozen U.S. soldiers and 40 Nigerien troops. The patrol was ambushed by what the Pentagon has described as self-radicalized, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-affiliated militants, killing the four Green Berets and injuring two others.

It's the first time U.S. troops have been killed as part of the counterterrorism mission in the northwestern African country, which has received little public attention. The United States has about 800 troops and a drone base in Niger, with another 200 troops elsewhere in the Chad Basin.

The Pentagon has said the attack happened in an area where multiple patrols had gone before without incident. French air support had to be called in to help.

The circumstances have prompted questions about whether the United States provided adequate force protection for its own troops, whether troops were prepared enough for the attack and whether the rescue response was fast enough.

Mattis has defended the response, but said the Pentagon is reviewing it to see what lessons can be learned.

"We will look at this and say, was there something we have to adapt to now?" Mattis told reporters last week. "We're not complacent. We're going to be better."

Meanwhile, McCain has been furious for months at what he sees as a lack of communication from the administration. He has pledged to block Defense Department nominees until the administration provides more information on the strategies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

McCain told reporters the Pentagon was expected to provide information he's asked for later Tuesday afternoon.

"We've been waiting for weeks and weeks," he said. "We will not sit by without having a complete understanding of what's going on."

Asked whether he expected Tuesday's information to include more on Niger, McCain said, "We'll find out."

McCain's comments echoed those of his committee's top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

"I think the administration has to be more clear about our role in Niger and our role in other areas in Africa and other parts of the globe," Reed said Tuesday on CNN. "They have to connect it to a strategy. They should do that. I think that the inattention to this issue is not acceptable."

Reed also alluded to the lack of information the day before, noting to reporters that his knowledge of the Niger attack did not come from an official briefing.

"The operation in Niger from what I know, and it's not from an official briefing, was unexpected," Reed said at a press conference. "It appears that the ISIS elements that were there had good intelligence of our operations, conducted a very sophisticated ambush of our forces. ... The operation I think has caused us to begin to re-examine force protection in Niger and other places, and also our ability to respond proactively to ISIS elements in that part of Africa."

The fact that four Americans were killed and that the attack took place in Africa has led to some comparisons to the response to the 2012 Benghazi attack, which prompted multiple congressional investigations.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CNN on Tuesday that after more facts are gathered, "you may very well see the same type of a demand for a review."

For now, though, Rounds said he foresees at least some congressional oversight.

"Any time you have a loss of life, any time you're involved in an incident in which we lose young men, we lose young women, Congress has an interest in seeing what happened, why, where, were they in the right place, was there something that we should have done differently," he said. "If we can learn from this, then we should be doing that."

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