Pentagon Report: Cascade Of Errors Led To Niger Ambush, Deaths Of 4 Americans

Apr 25, 2018
Originally published on April 25, 2018 9:35 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

New details are now emerging about the ambush that left four American soldiers dead in Niger last October. The Pentagon has repeated a report about the incident and has sent the classified report to Congress, and military officers are now beginning to brief the families. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now with the latest. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what more have we learned about what happened? I mean, you and others have already reported that this Green Beret team was supposed to go meet village elders, and then it changed into a much more dangerous mission, right?

BOWMAN: That's right. The report says there were a number of planning and training errors. These four soldiers were part of a team, as you say, that were doing what was called village engagement. But there was another mission going on by more heavily armed soldiers with a lot of planning. They were going after a terrorist leader, but that mission was scrubbed. It was determined that terrorist leader was not at the site.

So they sent this other team to go check it out, look for any intelligence, any information, cellphones and so forth. And they did not anticipate any contact with the enemy. But the second team didn't have the proper planning, training, the heavy firepower or even medevac or a quick reaction force that would come and help if something went wrong.

CHANG: So how did all of this happen? Why were they sent out totally ill-prepared? Who was at fault?

BOWMAN: Well, I'm told by an official who's seen the report that a lower-level officer, maybe a captain or a major, signed off on this new mission, and the higher-level officers were not kept abreast of it or aware of the change in mission and the increased risk. But when they came back from this mission, this second team, they hit an ambush, and they were overwhelmed by 50 fighters. And of course four Americans were killed.

CHANG: Will this report say anything about who is to blame?

BOWMAN: This report will not. That's for others to decide any punishments. But this report says there were failures at various levels and recommends the Army and the Special Operations Command look at this report, come up with a plan of action on training and of the failure at various levels. Again, it recommends that there - the fixes, for example, are classified exactly how you're going to fix this. But it's review the training, special operations training as well and also planning. Review this incident, and prevent it from happening again.

Now, the report also says these soldiers fought valiantly. And there was a helmet camera video that showed some of the soldiers pulling wounded comrades to safety behind an SUV. So you'll likely see medals of valor for this incident but unfortunately posthumous medals.

CHANG: Right. You said that families are now being briefed. I mean, these are families who have had a ton of questions for months, right?

BOWMAN: Right. And I'm told two of the four families have been briefed, and they're asking the same kinds of questions, Ailsa, we would ask, you know?

CHANG: Yeah.

BOWMAN: Why wasn't there enough American firepower coming quickly to help them? Part of that is a tyranny of distance. These countries are - some of them more than twice the size of Texas. And you don't have the large airfields with dozens of aircraft you'll see in a place like Afghanistan that could come to help or keep a close eye on you.

And part of this is these countries - a lot of these African countries don't want a huge American footprint, large American airfields or a large American presence. But they do want help in fighting terrorists and training their forces. So you could see more oversight coming down the line after this, maybe fewer patrols and maybe taking less risk.

CHANG: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.