The deadly Niger operation that killed four American soldiers last October was not legally authorized and the service members involved had not been trained to execute it, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said Wednesday after a classified briefing on the matter. He added: “People will be held accountable.”
“I believe that the troops who were sadly killed in Niger in October of 2017 were engaged in a mission that they were not authorized by law to participate in, and that they were not trained to participate in,” Kaine told CNN in an interview. “And that is a significant reason that they tragically lost their lives.”
Kaine learned of the new details in what he called an "explosive" briefing that took place Tuesday between members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Africa Command Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, and two assistant secretaries in the Department of Defense.
"After the hearing yesterday we had huddled. We are going to figure out a way that the story will be told and that people will be held accountable," Kaine said.
The Virginia Democrat wasn’t the only lawmaker to speak out about the operation, the new details of which Kaine said left the assembled senators “somewhat shocked.” And their concern wasn't a partisan issue either — lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voiced consternation about what they had learned.
Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska told reporters the briefing convinced him the incident seemed to him an indictment of the U.S.’s current strategy on the African continent.
“So there’s a big question here, in my view,” Sullivan said and reportedly singled out two Army captains.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said the briefing also “raises a lot of questions about future operations,” according to the Hill.
A lot of questions already surround the attack, during which four American soldiers were killed in an ambush over a hundred miles north of Niamey, the capital of Niger. But exactly what happened there — and why — has been deliberately shrouded in mystery since the news first broke.
A series of miscalculations, miscommunications, and diverging interests blurred the timeline of an already opaque conflict, and in the weeks and months after, conspiracy theories gained traction questioning whether American forces were actually there for what they said they were. The theories also pointed to foul play in the death of the fourth soldier, Sgt. La David Johnson, whose body took 48 hours to recover.
Though it was initially reported that Johnson had been captured and executed during a routine expedition, a military report released in December asserted that he'd instead been killed by a hail of gunfire. Further details in official statements and news reports indicated that although the team had initially set out to advise and assist Niger’s forces, their mission abruptly changed to a capture-and-kill operation of a high-profile terrorist before things went south.
News outlets published some of the still-unreleased details of the Pentagon’s investigation into Niger on Tuesday, which reportedly singled out two Army captains as misleading their superiors over the nature of their mission, leading them to believe it would be less dangerous than it actually was.
As a result, the report specifically recommends against taking action against the special forces team, because they appeared to have thought they had the authority to make those mission changes, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The investigative report at the center of the briefing tops 6,000 pages and is based on interviews with more than 140 people, according to NBC. Families of the fallen soldiers were briefed on its contents in late April and early May, before the lawmakers were briefed.
Cover image: U.S. Military honor guards carry the casket of U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson during his burial service at the Memorial Gardens East cemetery on October 21, 2017 in Hollywood, Florida. Sgt. Johnson and three other American soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.