Niger ambush came after 'massive intelligence failure,' source says

WASHINGTON — A senior congressional aide who has been briefed on the deaths of four U.S. servicemen in Niger says the ambush by militants stemmed in part from a "massive intelligence failure."

The Pentagon has said that 40 to 50 militants ambushed a 12-man U.S. force in Niger on Oct. 4, killing four and wounding two. The U.S. patrol was seen as routine and had been carried out nearly 30 times in the six months before the attack, the Pentagon has reported.

The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said the House and Senate armed services committees have questions about the scope of the U.S. mission in Niger, and whether the Pentagon is properly supporting the troops on the ground there.

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US soldiers killed in Niger ambush
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US soldiers killed in Niger ambush
A combination photo of U.S. Army Special Forces Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson (L to R), U.S. Special Forces Sgt. Bryan Black, U.S. Special Forces Sgt. Dustin Wright and U.S. Special Forces Sgt. La David Johnson killed in Niger, West Africa on October 4, 2017, in these handout photos released October 18, 2017. Courtesy U.S. Army Special Operations Command/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
A U.S. Army carry team transfers the remains of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Georgia, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, U.S. on October 5, 2017. Courtesy Aaron J. Jenne/U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was among four special forces soldiers killed in Niger, West Africa on October 4, 2017, poses in a handout photo released October 18, 2017. Courtesy U.S. Army Special Operations Command/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia

(Photo via U.S. Army)

Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio

(Photo via U.S. Army)

Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington

(Photo via U.S. Army)
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There was no U.S. overhead surveillance of the mission, he said, and no American quick-reaction force available to rescue the troops if things went wrong. If it weren't for the arrival of French fighter jets, he said, things could have been much worse for the Americans.

Congress also has many unanswered questions about what happened, he said, including about the specifics of the mission that day and the accounts lawmakers have been given about the timeline of the attack and rescue.

The aide said questions are being asked about whether the U.S. soldiers were intentionally delayed in the village they were visiting. He said they began pursuing some men on motorcycles, who lured them into a complex ambush. The enemy force had "technical" vehicles — light, improvised military vehicles — and rocket-propelled grenades, the official said.

After the rescue when it became clear that one soldier was missing, "movements and actions to try and find him and bring him back were considered. They just were not postured properly [to get him]." The body of Sgt. La David Johnson was not recovered until nearly 48 hours after the Oct. 4 attack.

The Pentagon said that conclusions about an intelligence failure were premature.

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Defense Secretary James Mattis meets with Sen. John McCain on Niger attack
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Defense Secretary James Mattis meets with Sen. John McCain on Niger attack
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 20: Defense Secretary James Mattis arrives in Russell Building before a meeting with Sen. John MCain, R-Ariz., on October 20, 2017, about the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 20: Defense Secretary James Mattis is seen in Russell Building before a meeting with Sen. John MCain, R-Ariz., on October 20, 2017, about the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 20: Defense Secretary James Mattis is seen in Russell Building before a meeting with Sen. John MCain, R-Ariz., on October 20, 2017, about the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 20: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis arrives at the office of Sen. John McCain on Capitol Hill to meet with Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), October 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Senator McCain had recently expressed frustration about the lack of details emerging from the Pentagon about the incident in Niger where 4 U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 20: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis arrives at the office of Sen. John McCain on Capitol Hill to meet with Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), October 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Senator McCain had recently expressed frustration about the lack of details emerging from the Pentagon about the incident in Niger where 4 U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 20: Defense Secretary James Mattis leaves military liaison offices in Russell Building before a meeting with Sen. John MCain, R-Ariz., on October 20, 2017, about the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 20: Defense Secretary James Mattis is seen in Russell Building before a meeting with Sen. John MCain, R-Ariz., on October 20, 2017, about the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
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On Friday afternoon, Defense Secretary James Mattis met with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to discuss the Niger raid.

Earlier this week, McCain said the committee had not been provided with the information about the Niger mission that it "deserves."

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said Congress will require more information from a Trump administration that is expanding counter terrorism operations across the globe.

Trump is loosening the rules of engagement when it comes to lethal action against terrorists, and expanding the counterterrorism fight to different parts of the world, including across Africa, Graham said.

"The war is morphing," he said. "You're going to see more actions in Africa, not less."

In that context, Graham said, "I will insist that Congress is informed more often and in more detail," about military operations.

He added, "As the war expands, as the military had more authority, Congress is going to require more information."

Pentagon officials say operations in the region have already "tightened up" and there's been an operational "pause" while the U.S. military's Africa Command (AFRICOM) assesses the situation. U.S. officials believe the attack was carried out by a local terror group that claims association with ISIS.

Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of AFRICOM since 2016, told Congress in March that only 20 to 30 percent of AFRICOM's needs for "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance" flights were being met. The Marine Corps general said there weren't enough helicopters to find wounded or dead soldiers, and that African partners weren't able to help with recovery missions.

"For personnel recovery," he said, "Africa Command relies heavily on contract search and rescue assets."

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