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Niger hearing signals increased cooperation between Hill, Pentagon

Nigerien soldiers receive a counter IED class as part of Exercise Flintlock 2017 in Diffa, Niger, Feb. 28, 2017.

KULANI LAKANARIA/U.S. ARMY

By CLAUDIA GRISALES AND STEPHEN CARLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 26, 2017

WASHINGTON — Several senators walked away Thursday from a closed hearing on the deadly Niger attack saying they were pleased with the amount of information shared so far in a sign of increasing cooperation from the Pentagon.

The hearing came more than three weeks after the Oct. 4 ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers, and heightened concerns from Congress that the Pentagon wasn’t forthcoming about what happened.

Several senators declined to discuss specifics from Thursday’s meeting since some of the information shared was classified. On behalf of the Pentagon, Robert Karem, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and Maj. Gen. Albert Elton II, Air Force deputy director for special operations and counterterrorism, were slated to testify.

“There’s still some questions that are out there. But it was an excellent briefing,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which hosted Thursday’s hearing. “We got a lot of good information. And it’s progress. We expect more, but this is what we’ve been asking for.”

One week ago, a frustrated McCain threatened to issue a subpoena for more information on the Niger attack. The next day, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made an impromptu visit to Capitol Hill to visit behind closed doors with McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

“We have a commitment from Gen. Mattis to be regularly updated, to be regularly consulted,” McCain said Thursday.

That could also mean McCain will lift his hold on several Pentagon nominations in exchange for more information from defense officials, he said. But the senator stopped short of saying which ones, only that he would lift “some” holds.

But still, many questions remain in the Niger attack. Among them: Why did it take 48 hours to find the body of Army Sgt. La David Johnson?

“I emerge with more questions than answers and there needs to be a full investigation,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “I need to be able to look families in the eye and explain what our mission is, what mistakes were made in this incident, …who made them and why.”

On Oct. 4, a roughly 40-person U.S.-Nigerien patrol that included 12 U.S. soldiers came under assault by militants in southwest Niger near its border with Mali. The Pentagon has described the potential attackers as a local, self-radicalized group aligned with the Islamic State.

A fight ensued, resulting in the deaths of Johnson and Army Staff Sgts. Bryan C. Black, Jeremiah W. Johnson and Dustin M. Wright. They were assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C. Two other U.S. soldiers were injured in the ambush and five Nigerien troops were killed.

Blumenthal said Thursday that public hearings are needed to assess why the United States has roughly 6,000 troops stationed in Africa and to re-assess U.S. strategy, tactics and resources there.

An investigation into the attack is underway, and could take 30 days before any findings are released.

“What was the strategy? Why were we surprised?” McCain asked about the Niger mission. “There’s 100 questions that need to be answered.”

McCain and other senators who emerged from Thursday’s meeting also said the fight against ISIS is shifting and moving to West Africa.

“There’s no doubt. There’s no doubt,” McCain said. “The threat grows.”

But funding remains a concern. In testimony earlier this year, a top commander for U.S. Africa Command told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it was woefully underfunded, operating with about 20 to 30 percent of its assets as a result of cuts to defense spending.

“So what did the Congress of the United States do? Continue to cut spending on defense, putting the lives of the men and women who are serving in greater danger,” McCain said. “It’s a shameful chapter in the history of the Congress of the United States.”

The Niger attack is also highlighting what some lawmakers contend are outdated war authorizations from 2001 and 2002 that gave the president wide-ranging powers to fight terrorist groups around the world. Now, more members of Congress are saying it is time for updated war authorizations that could dictate how the war is fought in this new era.

On Monday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is slated to address the war authorizations in an evening hearing.

grisales.claudia@stripes.com
Twitter: @cgrisales

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