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Pentagon Releases Report After Niger Ambush Investigation


Four U.S. and five Nigerien soldiers died in an ambush in Niger last fall. They were attacked by militants who claimed affiliation with ISIS. For months, the Pentagon has been trying to figure out what exactly went wrong, and today it formally released a summary of its investigation. As NPR reported earlier this week, it found deficiencies in training and communications, but it concluded there was no single mistake that led to the incident.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now. And, Tom, what new details came out today about what happened on October 4 in Niger?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, we learned that all American soldiers who died that day fought to the end, and others risked their lives to help their doomed comrades. And we'll likely see Medals of Valor for both those killed and those who survived. Two of the four dead American soldiers were actually loaded on to ISIS' pickup truck. And only the arrival of French jets prevented the dead from being taken away. And the American and Nigerien forces were outgunned 3 to 1. They did not have enough firepower, and it took a little less than an hour for the French jets to arrive and scatter the militants and prevent more deaths.

Now, U.S. officers, including General Tom Waldhauser, the top officer for Africa who briefed today, said there were a number of lapses in training, communications and preparations. But no single factor, he said, or a single mistake was a sole cause of this tragedy.

CORNISH: Right. I mean, it's one thing to say there's no single mistake, but did - at least say anything about what could have been done differently?

BOWMAN: Well, they kept referring to the training, communications and preparation problems all with the special operators in Africa, the Green Berets in this case. There was a whole list. So I asked General Waldhauser, you know, what's the story here? Are they sloppy? Are they cowboys? Are they taking too much risk? And this is what he said.


GEN THOMAS WALDHAUSER: Generally, from my observations and the evidence that this investigation found is that special operators are doing a fantastic job across the continent. They work under some extreme conditions in the African continent. They have to be able to make decisions about whether to or not to take - to go into certain operations because if the assets that they need are not there today, they need to be able to come back tomorrow when they have them. So the bottom line is, the special operators on the continent are serving well. They do high-risk missions. And based on my observations, this particular team is not indicative of what they do.

BOWMAN: So he's referring to this one team. But the report cites all these problems up the chain of command with the special operators. But you hear General Waldhauser say they're doing a fantastic job. So there's obviously a disconnect there. And also, they cut short the press conference. Another question for him would have been, did you only find out about these problems, you know, after the ambush?

CORNISH: When it comes to the changes suggested, could any of them have prevented the ambush?

BOWMAN: You know, it's hard to see how any of these changes they talked about could have prevented the ambush. These guys were - needed more firepower, maybe armored vehicles, a drone to keep an eye on any threat so you don't get ambushed. There was a drone overhead, we're told, but it left on another mission before the ambush began. And they needed those French jets to arrive much more quickly, not nearly an hour later. But this is Africa - large countries with few airfields or not enough U.S. or allied aircraft. They have to do with less than the troops in, let's say, Iraq or Afghanistan.

CORNISH: Finally, what will the military do differently going forward?

BOWMAN: Well, General Waldhauser said troops will now have armored vehicles available, more firepower, though he wasn't specific. And drones will now go along on all missions. And I'm told contract CASEVAC helicopters will be available to get - take away any wounded no more than two hours away. And as far as any future missions, the general said, quote, "we are now far more prudent on our missions."

CORNISH: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

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

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.