McCain pleased at 'progress' with Pentagon after Niger briefing

McCain pleased at 'progress' with Pentagon after Niger briefing
© Greg Nash

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRomney forced into GOP primary for Utah Senate nomination Trump considering pardon for boxing legend after call from Sylvester Stallone GOP poised to advance rules change to speed up Trump nominees MORE (R-Ariz.) emerged satisfied Thursday from a briefing on the Niger attack, saying the Pentagon is making progress on being more forthcoming to Congress.

“It was an excellent briefing,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman McCain told reporters. “We got a lot of good information. Everybody got their questions in, and it’s progress. And we expect more, but this is what we’ve been asking for.”

“I am pleased at the cooperation we are getting now,” he added later.

Still, due to the fact that the investigation into the attack is ongoing, McCain said he has a number of questions, a sentiment shared by his Armed Services colleagues.

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Chief among McCain’s outstanding questions is why it took 48 hours to find the body of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the Army Green Berets killed in the attack.

“What was the strategy? Why were we surprised? There’s a hundred questions that need to be answered,” McCain said.

On Oct. 4, 12 U.S. soldiers and 30 Nigerien troops were ambushed by militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as they were on their way back from a reconnaissance mission in the village of Tongo Tongo. Four U.S. soldiers were killed, with Johnson’s body not recovered until Oct. 6.

McCain has been railing against the Pentagon since the attack, at one point raising the possibility that a subpoena might be needed to get answers. He’s also threatened to block Pentagon nominees until he gets answers on Niger on top of his previous threats to block nominees over questions on Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Asked about nominees Thursday, McCain said he will lift some holds.

“We are certainly talking about that, and we’re making progress, and I will lift some of the holds,” he said.

Several other members of the Armed Services Committee said Thursday they too still have many questions, chalking it up to the ongoing investigation.

Senators said the Pentagon investigation is expected to take 30 to 60 days.

Like McCain, Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonOvernight Energy: Senate confirms Bridenstine as NASA chief | Watchdog probes Pruitt’s use of security detail | Emails shine light on EPA science policy changes Scott ramps up spending to million in Florida Senate race Overnight Energy: Trump NASA pick advances after drama | White House office to investigate Pruitt's soundproof booth | 170 lawmakers call for Pruitt to resign MORE (D-Fla.) said after the briefing the timeline of the attack needs to be clearer, including why it took so long to find Johnson.

“We don’t know that yet, and I take it the guys down there briefing us didn’t know that, that they haven’t drawn that conclusion from Africom headquarters,” he said, referring to U.S. Africa Command.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he now has more questions than answers, and called for open hearings on the issue.

“I need to be able to look families in the eye and explain what our mission is, what mistakes were made in this incident,” he said. “Most important, there need to be public hearings. The American people need to understand why we have 6,000 troops in Africa, and we need to reassess our strategy and tactics, and most important reinforce our resources.”

On resources, Blumenthal cited U.S. Africa Command commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser’s March testimony to Congress that he only has 20 to 30 percent of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities he needs.

McCain said whether the committee holds an open hearing will depend on the results of the investigation, saying he does not want details that could compromise security of U.S. forces to be public.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz's Dem challenger slams Time piece praising Trump Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election 32 male senators back Senate women's calls to change harassment rules MORE (R-Texas) said he still wants to know what happened, including what information allowed the terrorists to attack and how the attack unfolded.

But, he added, the briefing left him encouraged that everything that could have been done to protect the soldiers was done.

“We obviously want to wait and see the results of the Pentagon’s investigation as to what exactly transpired, what led to our soldiers being ambushed and ultimately four soldiers losing their lives,” he said. “I was encouraged by the testimony that on the initial assessment, there were not significant steps that could have been taken to prevent this assault. The detailed investigation may produce significant conclusion.”

McCain, though, called the mission a failure because U.S. troops died.

“Whenever there’s a failure, it could be prevented,” he said.

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisRepublicans divided over legislation protecting Mueller Senate panel moving ahead with Mueller bill despite McConnell opposition House Dem wants floor vote on bill to protect Mueller from Trump MORE (R-N.C.) said after the briefing he does not think the attack was the result of a significant intelligence failure, saying the nature of the train, advise and assist mission in Niger means U.S. forces are not expected to face combat.

“If you take a look at, again, there are dozens of these missions that play out peacefully and successfully,” he said. “You have limited resources in the region, and you take certain risks.”