Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s fresh review into the 2017 ambush that killed four U.S. troops in Niger is expected to be completed in “weeks,” according to an administration official, and will be led by Gen. Robert Brown, the commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific.
“This is not a new investigation,” the official said. “This is a narrowly scoped review led by a four-star flag officer. The reviewing official will review the investigation reports on the Niger incident conducted to date to provide a recommendation to [Shanahan] whether additional accountability measures are appropriate.”
This will be the Pentagon’s third attempt to investigate the ambush, which has led to a snarl of reprimands, public recriminations, and a 7,000-page classified report that current and former defense officials have described as “a mess,” “out of control” and “a comedy of errors.”
Deciding how to structure the new review — announced by Shanahan last week during a public hearing — has been a matter of intensive deliberations behind closed doors. The details have been held extremely close in the Pentagon, with even some key officials apparently left out of the loop. Shanahan weighed several candidates to lead the probe only to later find they didn’t meet his criteria, including Gen. Michael Xavier Garrett, the commander of U.S. Army Forces Command.
CNN reported last week that the Pentagon was planning to name a senior officer to be the so-called Consolidated Disposition Authority, or CDA, a designation allows for an independent review to determine if any legal or other disciplinary actions are warranted in cases involving multiple servicemembers. But the administration official said Thursday the CDA is not the authority under which Brown will operate. It was not immediately clear under what authority he will do so.
Determining who should have responsibility for assigning blame for the incident was a tensely complicated issue that raised questions about the chain of command and how the military holds officers accountable for mistakes.
“This is a solvable problem, but it may be one that takes a little time and thought to solve,” said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School.
The ambush took place at a remote village called Tongo Tongo after a small group of Green Berets were diverted from what was supposed to be a routine patrol, and sent instead on a capture-or-kill raid targeted at an ISIS-affiliated militant. An initial review, carried out by the chief of staff to Africa Command head Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, drew swift criticism for placing blame largely on the junior officers involved in the failed raid. A subsequent review, by the Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, who deployed the fallen service-members, slapped a letter of reprimand on the commander of special operations forces in Africa — but that two-star was already planning on retiring, and critics have argued that it was a hollow gesture.
The leader of the Green Beret team that was attacked, Capt. Michael Perozeni, has been reprimanded, reprieved, and then reprimanded again. Perozeni was reprimanded in October for failing to ensure his team was adequately trained, but the Army rescinded that reprimand after then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly erupted in frustration that the punishments had focused solely on junior officers. Then, in February, after Mattis resigned, the Army issued a new reprimand dinging Perozeni for failing to perform the proper training before the mission.
Lt. Col. David Painter, a battalion commander based in Chad, was also cleared — only to be punished later. Perozeni had told his commanders that his team did not have the equipment or intelligence it needed to carry out an unplanned kill-or-capture raid, but was ordered by Painter to continue anyway. Painter was cleared in both the AFRICOM and SOCOM investigations — but after Mattis complained, he was removed from command of an advisory battalion just weeks before it was slated to deploy. Critics have warned that this threatens to repeat the mistakes of the failed Niger raid by sending a combat unit into theater unprepared.
Col. Bradley Moses, who was then the commander of the 3rd Special Forces Group — the officer in charge of all special operations troops in West Africa — is the only person in the chain of command who remains unpunished. (Other than Waldhauser, the four-star commander in charge of the command.) A rising star in the special operations community, Moses is currently the chief of staff of Army Special Operations Command, and is expected to be promoted to brigadier general. Some former special operations officers and others closely tracking the case suspect that the guttering pace of the investigation reflects an effort by the special operations community to shield Moses from punishment.
“It seems to me is that we’re going to place blame on junior officers, and we’re letting colonels and general officers just get off the hook,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week.
Don Bolduc, a two-star who retired as head of Special Operations Africa just days before the ambush and has been publicly critical of the handling of the investigation, was more explicit.
“I think it’s all to try and protect Col. Moses,” Bolduc said. Moses, he said, is a “superb officer and a good man” — and his current role at USASOC is a “kingmaker” for general officers — but “I don’t think he should have escaped responsibility.”
Shanahan surprised senior officials in the Pentagon when he announced a new review into the matter during a House Armed Services hearing last week, telling Gallego that he found the initial review done under Mattis “insufficient.”
“The fundamental reason that I’ve done this is, for every person between boots on the ground to the most senior position, I want a direct accounting,” Shanahan said.
That the details of the new review remained under tight seal hints at the complexity and raw emotions surrounding the incident and its aftermath. Choosing an officer to head the new probe would be “a snap” legally, according to Fidell. “One reason they invented the CDA was to overcome arbitrary boundaries when it comes to the administration of justice. The whole point was Command A and Command B should not be able to come up with wildly disparate outcomes arising from the same chain of events,” he said. But the choice carries complex cultural issues — particularly related to chain of command — within the Defense Department.
Finding the right person and the right authority to lead that investigation is tricky, agreed one SOCOM official with knowledge of the broader investigation. That official suggested that in order to appease all of the various competing interests, it would have to be “a non-SOF guy, a non-Army person — so, you bring in a Navy guy?”
At SOCOM, there have been longstanding questions about why the Pentagon Inspector General hasn’t launched an investigation.
“If there was concern with this being appropriately handled above AFRICOM, why not utilize the Defense Department’s inspector general?” the SOCOM official asked. “The DOD IG exists for this.”