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Dunford pledges more transparency on Niger attack

The top general in the United States pledged Monday to keep the public, the media and Congress informed of the investigation into the ambush in Niger as questions continue to swirl about the circumstances of the attack.

Yet, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford provided few new details on the Oct. 4 attack that left four U.S. soldiers dead, saying the investigation would clear up many of the questions.

“We owe the families as much information as we can find out about what happened, and we owe the American people an explanation of what their men and women were doing at this particular time," Dunford told reporters at the Pentagon. “The only thing I’m asking for today is a bit of patience to make sure what we provide to you, when we provide it, is factual.”

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Dunford took questions from reporters for about 50 minutes to address what he acknowledged was a "perception that the Department of Defense has not been forthcoming." Though he offered few answers, he conceded reporters were asking “fair questions.”

The Pentagon has come under increasing criticism from prominent lawmakers and others over transparency on the attack and, more broadly, U.S. operations in Niger.

On Sunday, for example, both Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham backs bill to protect Mueller Senate GOP readies for leadership reshuffle Election Countdown: Florida braces for volatile recount | Counties race to finish machine recount | Trump ramps up attacks | Abrams files new lawsuit in Georgia | 2020 to be new headache for Schumer | Why California counts its ballots so slowly MORE (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSunday shows preview: Trump taps acting attorney general to lead Justice Department Pro-Israel organizations should finally seek payback against Iran deal Dems Pelosi: Acting attorney general 'should not be there' MORE (D-N.Y.) said that before the attack, they were unaware the United States had 1,000 troops in Niger and surrounding countries.

Lawmakers were notified in a June letter from the White House that the United States had about 945 troops in the region. U.S. Africa Command’s 2017 posture statement to Congress also mentioned “approximately 1,000 personnel conducting 12 named operations across a nine nation region” in West Africa.

Asked Monday about lawmakers’ criticisms, Dunford said he thought the Pentagon had been doing a good job informing Congress. But, he added, if lawmakers say the Pentagon needs to do better, then it does.

“If the Congress doesn’t believe that they’re getting sufficient information, then I need to double my efforts to provide them information,” he said. “We thought we were doing alright. What’s most important is how the Congress feels about that, and so we need to double our communications efforts and we’ll do that.”

Dunford’s briefing also comes as the White House continues to be ensnared in controversy over President Trump’s response to the attack and his subsequent call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of one of the soldiers killed in the attack.

As the controversy ballooned last week, Trump’s chief of staff, John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, a retired four-star general, appeared at the White House press briefing to discuss the process after a service member is killed in combat. At the Thursday briefing, Kelly would only take questions from people who know Gold Star families and slammed a congresswoman who listened to Trump’s call to Johnson as “selfish.”

The next day, when it was revealed Kelly incorrectly characterized the congresswoman’s remarks at a 2015 dedication ceremony for an FBI office, Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the press that it’s “highly inappropriate” the question a four-star general.

Johnson made her first public comments Monday during an interview on "Good Morning America." Among her criticism was that she was not allowed to see her husband body.

Dunford said he does not know what happened in this particular case, but that protocol would be the military would recommend whether the family should see the body. But it would ultimately be up to the family whether to do so, he said.

Attempting to clear up confusion on the attack itself, Dunford walked through the timeline as the Pentagon knows it now.

On Oct. 3, 12 U.S. soldiers and 30 Nigerien troops set out on a reconnaissance mission to the village of Tongo Tongo. They came under attack Oct. 4 after they left Tongo Tongo and were en route back to their base.

Among new details revealed by Dunford is that one hour elapsed between the U.S. soldiers coming into contact with enemy forces and the soldiers calling for help. From there, it took French Mirage jets 30 minutes to be ready to head out and another 30 minutes to arrive, he said.

Other questions, including where Sgt. La David Johnson’s body was found, how Johnson was separated from the other soldiers, whether the nature of the mission changed from reconnaissance to something else and whether the United States has enough intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance support in the region, will be answered in the investigation, Dunford said.

“We owe you more information, more important we owe the families of the fallen more information,” he said. “That’s what the investigation is designed to identify.”