The final report on the fatal Niger ambush, which will include who is being punished, awards, and a redacted investigation into the deaths of the four fallen U.S. soldiers, is tied up in the offices of the secretary of defense.
That has at least one lawmaker frustrated.
“We can’t process what actually occurred because we’re not getting a full report,” Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Marine veteran, said Thursday. “That’s my dissatisfaction right now, because there are currently operations probably happening in AFRICOM and I have zero doubt that there’s actually been full changes.”
“I don’t know who was responsible for this major mess-up and it scares me that the DoD is at this point still hiding this information and it has been two years," Gallego said.
If the reports don’t come out soon, he added that Congress will have to take some “extraordinary measures to actually get that to happen.”
During the hearing, Gallego cited several reports by the New York Times that stated the military has been trying to pin the blame for the October 2017 Niger ambush on junior officers. The attack caught American forces off-guard following an overnight mission, and resulted in the deaths of four American and four Nigerien soldiers.
“The investigation right now lies with the secretary of defense. The issue of accountability and awards, and so forth, comes from SOCOM [U.S. Special Operations Command],” Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, AFRICOM commander, said. “I’m not privy to those discussions, but I know they’ve been ongoing.”
Kathryn Wheelbarger, the acting assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, said the final report is with Patrick Shanahan, the acting secretary of defense.
“[Shanahan] takes this very seriously. Obviously, we’ve had a transition of authority," Wheelbarger said, noting the departure of Defense Secretary James Mattis in December. "[Shanahan’s] reviewing this carefully and we are expecting you to get that final report here shortly.”
Wheelbarger could not say who would ultimately be held accountable for the failures that led to the ambush, which included a lack of air support, copy and pasted mission plans and a lack of proper approval for the mission.
Gallego also asked officials why a report on the review of the Pentagon’s advise, assist and accompany missions, as required by the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, had not been submitted to Congress.
That review is also tied up at Shanahan’s office, Wheelbarger said. It will be released pending a complete decision on all other recommendations surrounding the Niger ambush investigation.
Another reporting requirement includes providing redacted files of the complete investigation to the families of the deceased troops, according to the hearing.
Waldhauser said that changes have been implemented since the ambush.
“Some of the things we’ve done since the Niger incident have to do with the tactical actions and procedures on the ground, and minimum force requirements," Waldhauser said.
He added that there have been changes to the timelines for casualty and medical evacuations, coordination efforts, overhead armed air support where applicable and aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support more generally.
“And then what we’ve been doing recently is we’re now advising them at a higher level, mostly at the battalion level and most of all remotely," Waldhauser said.
A 6,300-page investigation partially detailed by the Pentagon in May said that the mistakes leading up to the ambush were widespread.
An unclassified eight-page summary was released for public viewing.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.