Senators riled after closed-door briefing on Niger investigation
Senators emerged from a closed-door briefing Tuesday on the investigation into the ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers questioning the broader mission there, including whether the Pentagon has concealed from Congress the true nature of its operations in Africa.
“That was a very explosive briefing,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told reporters. “I have deep questions on whether the military is following instructions and limitations that Congress has laid down about the mission of these troops in Africa, and I’ve had those questions, and I think this hearing raised a lot more in a pretty explosive way.”
Calling the idea that the troops were on a train-and-equip mission a “fig leaf,” Kaine added that the briefing “raises questions about why people are hiding from us what they’re doing.”
Asked directly if he thinks the military was hiding from Congress what it was doing, Kaine said simply, “Yeah.”
The comments came after the Senate Armed Services Committee received a briefing from Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command; Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, who led the investigation into the ambush; Robert Karem, assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs; and Owen West, assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.
In January, a team of about a dozen U.S. soldiers was ambushed near the Nigerien village of Tongo Tongo by a local affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The United States has about 800 troops in Niger, with about 6,000 across Africa.
Questions have swirled since the attack about what their mission was, whether they had the proper authorities to carry out that mission and whether they were given the proper resources to protect themselves.
Africa Command (Africom) wrapped up its investigation in March, and Defense Secretary James Mattis gave his approval last month.
The families of the soldiers killed have been briefed, and now Congress is getting briefings. The Pentagon has said it will brief the press after Congress.
Still, details of the investigation have leaked, including that the mission was intended to kill or capture the leader of the ISIS affiliate.
Senators on Tuesday would not discuss details specific to the Niger ambush, though one appeared to confirm it was a kill-or-capture mission.
“If we’re putting our highest value trained soldiers on capture and kill missions, they should be individuals who threaten the country,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said the briefing showed “clearly some things, in terms of their concept of operation, they made mistakes.”
Sullivan said the briefing left him questioning whether the U.S. presence in Africa needs to be drawn down, especially given the administration’s stated National Defense Strategy of moving from counterterrorism to so-called great power competition.
“Do we need to look at the appropriate lay down of those forces globally,” he said. “I mean, how many drones do we have in Africa versus the Korean peninsula? How many intel? So there’s a big question here, in my view. To me, I think this should be an opportunity to look at broader strategic issues, not just the tactical operational aspects of what happened, how we lost soldiers.”
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), though, came away from the briefing with the opposite takeaway. Inhofe previously asked the Army to send a special brigade of about 500 soldiers to Africa and said Tuesday the briefing, particularly a 21-minute video that was shown, reinforced his position on the need for that.
“This is a tragedy, and this may end up achieving that,” he said. “It shows, you can surmise, that we need to have more activity there.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) indicated the briefing raised questions about whether Congress is giving Africa Command enough assets.
“I think it calls into question the strategy with Africom, in terms of not having — we are authorizing, but we are not necessarily setting up and providing them a specific series of assets, where they have to borrow the assets,” he said.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said the briefing “raises a lot of questions about future operations.” Asked further if the military is changing anything as a result, Shaheen replied, “Well, they say they are.”