WASHINGTON - The powerful head of the Senate Armed Services Committee says there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the Oct. 4 ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers.
Two senior Pentagon officials briefed Republican John McCain and other committee members behind closed doors Thursday. They heard from Robert Karem, assistant secretary for International Security Affairs, and Air Force Major General Albert Elton, the deputy director for special operations and counterterrorism.
McCain said he is pleased with the cooperation from the Pentagon but that there is still lots more he wants to know.
"What was the strategy, why were we surprised? There’s 100 questions that need to be answered," McCain told reporters. He said the deaths in Niger were a result of bad luck and bad strategy.
McCain said he also wants to know why it took two days to recover the body of Sergeant La David Johnson.
Texas Republican Ted Cruz said he came out of the briefing with the initial conclusion that "there were not significant steps that could have been taken to prevent this assault."
But Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, was critical of what he called a lack of intelligence and support from the air that cost four Americans their lives in Niger.
"I could not look those families in the eye and say we’re doing everything we need to do to provide sufficient intelligence that will enable them to be successful in their missions and avoid the kind of catastrophe that we saw here," Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal said he wants public hearings, but McCain said he at least wants to wait until the Pentagon concludes its probe before making that decision.
Islamic State-linked fighters ambushed the American special forces near the Niger-Mali border. It apparently took an hour for the U.S. forces to call for backup and another hour before French planes came to their aid.
Exactly what happened is still murky and why it took so long to call for help, even to those at the top in the Pentagon.
Some in Congress say they were surprised to learn the U.S. has close to 1,000 soldiers in Niger as part of a mission to help West African forces take on Islamic extremists.
Congressman Marc Veasey, a Texas Democrat, said Thursday, "I think that you’re going to see more and more troops in Africa ... as ISIS continues to get pushed out of the Middle East and their so-called caliphate ... they’re going to be looking for places to regroup."
Veasey said the jihadists are "looking for people that may sympathize with them — may want to bolster their own reputation in these certain areas. And you have a lot of ungoverned space in Africa, particularly along these borders.
"When you look at what happened in Niger and how close it was to Mali it's almost very similar to the Middle East and that those spaces are ungoverned — yeah, no man’s land," he said.
Generals given authority
President Donald Trump said Wednesday he did not specifically authorize the Niger mission.
"But I have generals that are great generals. These are great fighters, these are warriors," Trump said. "I gave them authority to do what’s right so that we win. That’s the authority they have. I want to win and we’re going to win."
Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, said Trump "is the commander in chief and it’s about time he stops trying to shift responsibility to others. That's what a commander in chief is all about."
Trump has been embroiled in days of contentious public statements about his condolence call to Sergeant Johnson's widow.
Myeshia Johnson, pregnant with her third child, told ABC News earlier this week that Trump’s call to her only made her cry more because she heard him stumbling trying to remember my husband’s name.
"That's what hurt me the most because if my husband is out there fighting for our country, and if he risks his life for our country, why can’t you remember his name? And that one made me upset and cry even more because my husband was an awesome soldier."
She said that Trump told her that her husband "knew what he signed up for (in joining the military), but it hurts anyway. It made me cry. I was angry at the tone of his voice."
Trump has disputed her account, saying, "I certainly respect La David, who I, by the way, called La David right from the beginning. Just so you understand, they put a chart in front, La David,' it says La David Johnson.' So I called right from the beginning."
"I was extremely nice to her," he continued. "She sounds like a lovely lady. I’ve never seen her, I’ve never met her, but she sounds like a lovely lady. But I was extremely nice to her, I was extremely courteous, as I was to everyone else."