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Pentagon Updates Niger Investigation. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 23, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're going to start with a briefing at the Pentagon, where we expect to hear from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about new details of that horrific Niger raid when four service members were killed.

Jim Sciutto, what are we expecting to hear?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Jake, and I should say we're less than a minute away from hearing from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Listen, many key questions still unanswered. Why 48 hours before they were able to locate the missing body of Sergeant La David Johnson? Was why was he, as we reported over the weekend, a mile away from the initial site of that ambush, and also questions about where those forces were when this ambush took place.

Did they divert, for instance, from their initial mission? These questions still unanswered, in addition to larger questions about, what are the outlines of the U.S. mission in Niger, and why are troops putting their lives on the line there? We know that a big portion of it is building a drone base.

Why are the folks there on the front lines?

TAPPER: All right, Jim.

SCIUTTO: General Dunford is here.

TAPPER: Let's listen in.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: Hey, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for the opportunity to speak to you about the recent events in Niger which claimed the lives of four Americans, Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Sergeant La David Johnson, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright.

And I begin by once again offering my sincere condolences to the families and the units of the fallen. They're all in our thoughts and prayers.

Unrelated, today is the anniversary of the 1983 Beirut bombing. And I want the families of the 241 Americans lost that day to know that we will also never forget them.

After speaking to Secretary Mattis this morning, I decided to address you, because there's been a lot of speculation about the operation in Niger. And there is a perception that the Department of Defense has not been forthcoming.

And I thought it would be helpful for me to personally clarify to you what we know today and to outline what we hope to find out in the ongoing investigation.

Secretary Mattis would be here, but, as many of you know, he is in Asia.

Our soldiers are operating in Niger to build the capacity of local forces to defeat violent extremism in West Africa. Their presence is part of a global strategy.

As we have seen many times, groups like ISIS and al Qaeda pose a threat to the United States, the American people and our allies. They are a global threat enabled by the flow of foreign fighters, resources and their narrative.

And they seek to operate where they can exploit weaknesses of the local government and local security forces.

If you think of those enablers as connective tissue between groups across the globe, our strategy is to cut that tissue, while enabling local security forces to deal with the challenges within their countries and region.

While we can be proud of our progress to date, we have to acknowledge that our work is not done. Even with the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, we're at an inflection point in the global campaign, not an end point.

And that's why tonight I'm going to welcome chiefs of defense and representatives from 75 different countries to improve the effectiveness of our military network to defeat terrorism.

In our discussions over the next day or two, we will focus on improving information-sharing between nations to detect and defeat attacks before they occur and to approve the support we provide to nations provided that -- confronted with violent extremism.

And that's exactly what our forces in Niger were doing. The United States military has had forces in Niger off and on for more than 20 years. Today, approximately 800 service members in Niger work as part of an international effort led by 4,000 French troops to defeat terrorists in West Africa.

Since 2011, French and U.S. troops have trained a 5,000-person West African force and over 35,000 soldiers from the region to fight terrorists and affiliated with ISIS, al Qaeda and Boko Haram.

And let me address the specific events in Niger that took place early this month. On the 3rd of October, 12 members of the U.S. Special Operations Task

Force accompanied 30 Nigerian forces on a civil-military reconnaissance mission from the capital city of Niamey to an area near the village of Tongo Tongo.

Approximately 85 kilometers to the north was the location of that village. On the 4th of October, U.S. and Nigerian forces began moving back south. And en route to their operating base, the patrol came under attack from approximately 50 enemy using small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and technical vehicles.

And what I want to do now is, I want to walk through, for you, the timeline that we have, and kind of what I would categorize as what we know about the incident.

So, earlier in the morning of 3rd October, as I mentioned, U.S. forces accompanied that Nigerian unit on a reconnaissance mission to gather information. The assessment by our leaders on the ground at that time was that contact with the enemy was unlikely.

Mid-morning, on October 4, the patrol began to take fire as they were returning to their operating base. Approximately one hour after taking fire, the team requested support. And within minutes, a remotely piloted aircraft arrived overhead.


Within an hour, French Mirage jets arrived on station. And then, later that afternoon, French attack helicopters arrived on station and a Nigerian quick-reaction force arrived in the area where our troops were in contact with the enemy.

During the firefight, two U.S. soldiers were wounded and evacuated by French air to Niamey. And that was consistent with the casualty evacuation plan that was in place for this particular operation.

Three U.S. soldiers who were killed in action were evacuated on the evening of 4 October, and, at that time, Sergeant La David Johnson was still missing.

On the evening of 6 October, Sergeant Johnson's body was found and subsequently evacuated. From the time the firefight was initiated until Sergeant Johnson's body was recovered, French, Nigerian or U.S. forces remained in that area.

Many of you have asked a number of questions, and those are all -- and many of them are fair questions. And we owe you more information. More importantly, we owe the families of the fallen more information. And that's what the investigation is designed to identify.

The questions include, did the mission of U.S. forces change during the operation? Did our forces have adequate intelligence, equipment and training? Was their pre-mission assessment of the threat in the area accurate? Did U.S. force -- how did U.S. forces become separated during the engagement, specifically Sergeant Johnson? And why did it take time to find and recover Sergeant Johnson? Again, these are all fair questions that the investigation is designed

to identify.

And what I would say is that I hope, from this brief overview, I have outlined why our forces were in Niger, what they were doing at the time of the incident on the 3rd and 4th of October, what we know and, again, the questions that remain that we will work on over the next several weeks as the investigation unfolds.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

SCIUTTO: General Dunford, thanks very much.

We have reported that Sergeant Johnson's body was found some one mile away from the initial site of contact. Is that consistent with the information that you have? And is there any assessment at this point as to why that was the case?

And I have a brief follow-up, if you don't mind.


Jim, and this really is for all of you as we ask questions. We feel pretty confident in what took place before this patrol moved out. We know the general route that the patrol took before they came back in.

What happened from the time the patrol went out on the operation until the time when it returned, there's been a lot of speculation and a lot of reports. And that's why I want to baseline today what we know and what we don't know.

And what you're asking is a fair question, but we don't know that definitively right now. I can't answer it definitively. And what I'm trying to do today is -- and be very candid in, what do we know? I will share with you where I have seen speculation. And then what are the fundamental questions we're asking?

And the questions that we're asking -- this is a very complex situation that they found themselves in., a pretty tough firefight. And what tactical instructions the commander on the scene gave at a given time that caused units to maneuver and where they might have been when Sergeant Johnson's body was found, those are all questions that we will identify during the investigation.

And you had a follow-up.

SCIUTTO: Just a brief follow.

You're aware, I imagine, that some in the administration, when faced with tough questions about this operation and information-sharing from the operation, have intimated that perhaps members of the press shouldn't ask tough questions, particularly of people in uniform or recently in uniform.

And I'm curious if you have a reaction to that, if you share any of that, or you take any issue with those kinds of questions. DUNFORD: Let me just speak for myself on sharing information with the


And I don't know exactly what you're referring to, and so I'm not going to benchmark my comments against that.

I think, first and foremost, in this particular case, we owe the families as much information as we can find out about what happened. And we owe the American people an explanation of what their men and women were doing at this particular time.

And when I say that, I mean men and women in harm's way anywhere in the world. They should know what the mission is and what we're trying to accomplish when we're there. And so those are all fair questions, in my judgment.

In other words, that's why we're out here today, is to take your questions and provide as much information as we have.

The only thing I'm asking for today is a bit of patience to make sure that what we provide to you when we provide it is factual.

And the other thing, I think, that is also important is, when this information is finally available, the first thing we're going to do is go visit the families in their homes, should they welcome us. And we will have a team go in of experts.

And I have done this personally myself several times -- a team of experts go into the family and share with them all the facts that are available as a result of the investigation and give them an opportunity to ask questions.

And as soon as we're done with that, we will come back in here and we will share exactly that same information that we share with the families.


And so when I tell you today we don't know, it will be a fair answer. We don't know. And I'll tell you everything we do know definitively.

And I will tell you what the key elements are of the investigation that we hope to find out in the coming weeks.

But, again, with regard to being transparent, I think we do owe the families and the American people transparency in incidents like this. And we intend to deliver just that.

QUESTION: General Dunford, if I can just get a quick follow-up on the timeline.


QUESTION: You said that they didn't call for air support an hour -- until an hour into contact, and then the French came. So, that would make the arrival of the French 90 minutes, a good two hours after the initial contact, which conflicts with what we have been told.

DUNFORD: OK. So, let me walk you through the timeline.

The best we know now, and so -- when I have a degree of confidence, I'm sharing it.

About an hour after the initial contact was made, they requested support. When they requested support, it took the French aircraft -- the French were ready to go in 30 minutes, and then it took them 30 minutes, approximately 30 minutes, to get on the scene.

So, from that, I think it's a fair conclusion to say that about two hours after the initial contact was made, the initial French Mirage arrived overhead.

But it's important to note, when they didn't ask for support for that first hour, my judgment would be that that unit thought they could handle the situation without additional support. And so, while we will find out in the investigation exactly why it took an hour for them to call, we shouldn't conclude anything by that one hour.

It may very well have been -- and I have been in these situations myself, where you're confronted with enemy contact. Your initial assessment is, you can deal with that contact with the resources that you have, and at some point in the firefight, they concluded they then needed support, and so they call for additional support.

The confusion of the 30 minutes, which is always the danger of coming out and sharing information, right? So, this is what I'm trying to do to, is clear up today. I think what you were told in the past, that the French were there in 30 minutes, they responded within 30 minutes and they were overhead of this unit within 30 minutes. And so that's where the 30 minutes came from, and I'm making that clarification.

QUESTION: And then just an operational clarification.


QUESTION: You said they were ambushed when they were coming back to their outpost. Previously, we have been told that they were ambushed when they were leaving the village. Is there a discrepancy there?

DUNFORD: There is -- no, there is not a discrepancy.

When I described it, they're leaving the village. Where are they going at that point? They're going back to their operating base. They're moving south.


QUESTION: ... far from the village?

DUNFORD: I don't have the exact details of how far.

The investigation -- again, we will go out there. These investigations, for those that haven't been involved in the past, there will be people on the ground that will actually go and look at where this took place and measure the distances and get the details.

And we will be provided, so we can provide the family with detailed graphics of exactly what happened and how this unfolded. So I wouldn't want to talk about numbers and meters from the village, but the initial report was that the contact they made with the enemy was outside the village, south of the village, as they were heading back to their operating base.


QUESTION: I just want to be clear, sir, that you said that they did not call for support until an hour after first contact.

That's kind of putting a lot of pressure on those team members. So, can you say without a shadow of a doubt that, within that hour, they did not try and call out for support?

DUNFORD: Look, what I can tell you is the timeline that we have is the first -- first indicator that the unit called for external support was one hour later.

Now, I will tell you, the information I'm providing to you today is the complete information I have available. We may very well find out -- this is the difficulty in addressing these before the investigation is complete.

And I'm not -- I will tell you what. The one thing I would push back on hard is, I'm not putting any pressure on that unit. I made it very clear that I make no judgment as to how long it took them to ask for support. I don't know that they thought they needed support prior to that time. I don't know how this attack unfolded.

I don't know what their initial assessment was of what they were confronted with. What I do know is that our logs indicate an hour after the contact, approximately, they requested support. And then I talked about the timeline of the French response.

That's just what I know right now. I'm not going to tell you that, in the investigation, we won't find out that they attempted to get support, and it didn't come. I'm just telling you what I know.

Everything beyond what I told you would be speculation.



QUESTION: Is there good enough intelligence? Do they have enough ISR and equipment?

But General Waldhauser, who runs African Command, in his confirmation hearing last year said he's the economy theater, clearly, he doesn't have enough. And if the French have to come and help out, doesn't that, you know, raise the question of, is there enough American equipment there, number one?


QUESTION: And, again, Secretary Mattis said he wants to expand, lean forward more in AFRICOM. Can you do that without sending more equipment, ISR over there?

DUNFORD: Yes. No, Tom, fair question.

And I think I would distinguish between what does the commander AFRICOM need to do the full range of missions that he believes need to be done and what missions are being done with the equipment available?

[16:15:11] And I would tell you, that while General Waldhauser may need more capability to do more missions or more expansive missions, the responsibility of the commander is to employ the force within the resources that they have available. So, we shouldn't confuse the need for more capability to expand the mission with what capabilities are provided to a particular unit at a particular time, if you understand the distinction I'm trying to make.

REPORTER: The particular question you still need to be answered in this particular --

DUNFORD: Absolutely. I mean, look, there are two reasons to do the investigation. One reason is to make sure that we inform the families of the American people, and the Congress, of course. The second is every time something like this happens, we do an internal look at ourselves and find out what is it that we did, what could we do better and then make changes based on what I would consider an after action review. So, I think that's fair.

REPORTER: Right. The other issue is there are some in African Command and some here in the Pentagon who think the special forces are taking too many risks over there.

DUNFORD: Yes, Tom, I think that would be speculation. In other words, here's what I'm very clear on, I'm very clear on the framework within which this operation took place.

In other words, what did their orders say? I don't have any indication right now to believe or to know that they did anything other than operate within the orders that they were given. That's what the investigation's all about. So I think anyone that speculates about what special operations forces did or didn't do is doing exactly that, they're speculating.

REPORTER: But in general, special operators in Africa are maybe taking too many risks. That's the sense of some people in this billing and also at AfriCom.

DUNFORD: Tom, I don't -- it's not my assessment that they're taking too many risks. I mean, let's keep in mind, although I talked about enemy contact being unlikely on this particular mission, the reason we're in West Africa is because it's an area of concentration of ISIS and al Qaeda. The reason why our special operations forces are operating in Libya is because there is a threat of ISIS attacks from Libya. The reason they're in East Africa is because there is an al Qaeda and a smaller ISIS presence there.

So, to the extent that they're taking risk, we have sent them there to operate in areas within which there are extremist elements that if we weren't conducting operations, our judgment is that they would plan -- have the capability to plan and conduct operations against the homeland, the American people and our allies.

So, are they taking risks? They are. Have they taken risks that are unreasonable or not within their capabilities? I don't have any reason to believe that.

Sure. By the way, I'll stay to answer questions. So I'll get to you all.

REPORTER: Thank you, General Dunford. Could you please describe what weapons this unit had with them to defend themselves? Were they heavily defended or they go in in light trucks not expecting much resistance.

DUNFORD: I'll answer the second part because I know and I'll give you in general the first part. So, they did not expect resistance on this particular patrol, at least when they first planned it. Again, what happened subsequently will be the investigation, because the rules in that part of West Africa are that we will only accompany our partner forces when the chances of enemy contact are unlikely.

So with that, they were equipped with machine guns, small arms and obviously had the ability with communications capability to reach back and get greater, larger supporting arms.

REPORTER: And have you learned at all what time of fires they came under? Was it small arms fire, were there IEDs?

DUNFORD: Initial reports, I don't have reports of IEDs. I haven't seen those. Small arms, rockets and machine guns. Jennifer, I'll just come this way.

REPORTER: General Dunford, when did you alert the White House? There are indications that they did not know until ten hours after the attack began. And also, there are members on Capitol Hill, members of the Armed Services Committee who say they didn't know that we had troops in Niger. Is that possible?

DUNFORD: Two separate questions. We notified the White House as soon as we had a soldier that was missing was the first report. Now, they would have received an initial report probably simultaneously to me the way it works with our ops centers, that we had a report of three killed in action. I know we made some specific calls when we had a soldier that was missing, which, of course, we didn't report publicly because in the process they're trying to recover him.

So, I know that I spoke to the General Waldhauser that night when we got the initial report. It was probably around 9:00 or 9:30 Washington, D.C. time, the night of the 4th, and at that point knowing that we had a missing soldier, we made a decision to make sure that all of the resources to include national assets were available for the recovery of that operation.

[16:20:04] And, of course, we maintained operational security to not put at risk our operations to recover Sergeant Johnson at that particular time.

With regard to Congress, I've heard the criticism of we're not providing enough information, and the way I've taken that is to say, if the Congress doesn't believe that they're not -- that they're getting sufficient information, then I need to double my efforts to provide them with information.

So, you know, without going through what people may have known at any given point at this particular operation or any other operation. I mean, the one thing I can tell you is that Secretary Mattis and I have committed to make sure that we satisfy the needs of conversation with the information they need to provide oversight. And so, we're looking in the mirror saying, OK, we thought we were doing all right.

What's most important is how the Congress feels about that. And so, we need to double our communications efforts and we'll do that.

REPORTER: Thank you, General.

You mentioned this was a reconnaissance mission. There have been some conflicting accounts. Have you seen, so far, any indication to suggest that the original nature of this mission changed from its original intent?

DUNFORD: No. I -- here's what we know: it was planned as a reconnaissance mission. What happened after they began to execute it, in other words, did the mission change? That is one of the questions that's being asked. It's a fair question but I can't tell you definitively the answer to that question.

But, yes, we've seen the reports, we've seen the speculation. Given what happened, it's a fair question to ask because if the enemy situation was unlikely, we obviously lost four soldiers, had two others wounded in a pretty significant firefight.

So, at some point did the intelligence available to them change? Did they have other intelligence available? Did they decide to do something different than the original patrol with their partner forces? Those are some of the key questions that the investigation is looking to uncover.

Lea (ph)?

REPORTER: General, are you satisfied overall with the response times, including the fact that it took two days to recover Sergeant Johnson's body? And more broadly, what does this suggest to you about how you go about things going ahead? Is this a more dangerous area than perhaps either intelligence or something else may have indicated, and do you change things as you go ahead? Do you increase the assets overhead? Do you increase security patrol?

DUNFORD: I think all the questions that you asked, the answers to those are going to be informed by our reading of the investigation. I mean, we'll ask every single question you just asked, we will ask ourselves and make adjustments.

And keep in mind, I mean, I think it's an important point. This area is inherently dangerous. The judgment of contact with the enemy was made about a particular operation at a particular location at a particular time.

So, is this a dangerous area? Yes. That's -- we're there because ISIS and al Qaeda are operating in that area. That's why our forces are providing advise-and-assist to local forces to help them deal with that particular challenge.

With regard to our equipment, our responsiveness and so forth, those will all be questions that we will ask ourselves at every level once the investigation is concluded because I think it's important for us to baseline what support was requested at what particular time? When did it arrive? Was it what they needed? All of those are fair questions, but, again, I would just ask for your patience in just giving us the time it takes to do the investigation.

One of the questions that we haven't asked yet is, how long will it take to do the investigation? For Secretary Mattis and I, you know, we've talked to General Waldhauser. We certainly have expressed a sense of urgency in getting the answers to the questions that you've asked and the family have asked. We want to have that investigation concluded as quickly as possible, but we have prioritized making sure that the investigation is accurate. And that when we go to the families and we tell them what happened that it's based on facts.

And so, we're trying to balance the need to do this quickly with the need to make sure that it's accurate and I think we will certainly err on the side of accuracy.

REPORTER: Should there have been special forces also used to help locate his body, rather than relying on the Niger forces, do you think?

DUNFORD: Well, there were Niger forces involved in the operation, there were French forces involved in the operation, there were U.S. forces involved in the operation in its entirety. So, there were U.S. forces involved in the recovery.

And as I mentioned to you, without going into detail, as soon as General Waldhauser contacted me that night, I spoke to the secretary of defense. It was a 20-second phone call when I told him what we were asking for. I immediately called General Waldhauser, told him his request for additional support was approved and then we started putting the wheels in motion to deliver that capability.

So, I can tell you, once we found out that Sergeant Johnson was missing, we brought the full weight of the U.S. government to bear in trying to identify -- to try to recover his body.

REPORTER: There's a -- the shock of 800 troops of Niger.

[16:25:02] Is that the high point in terms of what we have in the region? Or do we have 1,000 in Mali and more in Nigeria?

DUNFORD: That's the largest number in Africa right now. We have more in East Africa, but in any one country, that's the most.

REPORTER: Mission creep, people are going to think --

DUNFORD: I'll tell you what I'll do, is I'll have the team come back and just make sure that, you know, just take a look at all of the countries. But that is -- it also is a high in this particular -- again, we've been there off and on for over 20 years. We established a joint special operations task force in 2011 -- 2008. And we probably had, you know, 500 or 600 forces there some months ago, this happened to be a high of 800.

REPORTER: The public are going to wonder, is this mission creep? Remember in 2000 -- 1993, October 3rd, Black Hawk down. People are going to say, is this mission creep? Is the mission consistent --

DUNFORD: Let me talk about the mission. And I think it's important for me to go back to my opening statement and talk about strategically what we were trying to do.

In our judgment, we're dealing with global threats in al Qaeda, in ISIS, in other groups, and the theory of the case of our strategy is to be able to put pressure on them simultaneously wherever they are, and as importantly to anticipate where they will be and to make sure that where they are and where they will be when they get there, they're confronted by local security forces that have the ability to meet the challenges associated with al Qaeda, ISIS and other groups.

And so, we are working with partners on the ground in West Africa. We are working with partners on the ground in other parts of Africa. It's the same thing we're doing in Iraq and Syria and it's what we're doing in Afghanistan.

But if you look at the numbers, we have 800 Americans, we have 4,000 French and there are over 35,000 local partners that are operating in there. If you look at the numbers in Afghanistan, approximately 11,000 Americans on the ground, 300,000 Afghans. So, what the American people need to know is, with a relatively small footprint, we are enabling local forces to deal with these challenges before they become a threat to the American people to and help them deal with the challenges so they don't further destabilize their local area or region.

REPORTER: There is a bit of contradicting information about the enemy KIA. Were there any enemy KIA and do you know how many?

DUNFORD: I don't have that. And we'll be happy -- as soon as the investigation is over, I'd be happy to provide that detail to you. I don't have any information.

REPORTER: Have there been any additional --

DUNFORD: What we did -- I would point out, though, we did lose five Nigerien partners, and that's important to point out. REPORTER: Have there been any additional patrols with U.S. forces in


DUNFORD: We are back conducting operations as normal. I don't have -- I don't have -- I don't have information available right now to tell you what's happening today, but our intent is to continue operations there and to train and advise our partners.

REPORTER: Has there been any change in force protection for the patrols, given what happened?

DUNFORD: Every unit that goes out, every patrol that is conducted goes out and makes an assessment of the mission and then the operating environment within which that mission is going to be conducted and then they prepare themselves accordingly. So, I just expect that continues to be what General Waldhauser and his leadership are doing.

REPORTER: Do you have any more information about who the attackers were? We were told initially that they were -- they had rebranded themselves as ISIS and they were a local tribe. And if you do identify who they were, will you go after them?

DUNFORD: Yes. Our assessment right now as it is that an ISIS- affiliated group. I think what you bring up and what we're dealing with in many places, ISIS and al Qaeda, ISIS in this case, they try to leverage local insurgencies and connect those local insurgencies globally. This is the challenge that we're dealing with. So, our initial assessment is these are local tribal fighters that are associated with ISIS.

REPORTER: And will you go after them once you locate where they are?

DUNFORD: I think we'll enable our local partners to go after them as a matter of priority.

REPORTER: Sir, thanks for your time. Particularly when it comes to the mirages that were brought on scene, do you have a sense that anything has changed now that you're back to doing operations? Is there any kind of shift here what they're allowed to do with their authorities or the coalition -- how quickly can you get air support now?

DUNFORD: On the issue of authorities, I just want to make it clear that U.S. forces and coalition forces in the area when it comes to an issue of force protection and self-defense don't have any limitations. They don't have any limitations. So that's been something that has been discussed.

So, you know, with regard to employing fires, if there is an issue of self-defense, we have the inherent right to do that and we will do that.

REPORTER: Were there limitations that night?

DUNFORD: I am not aware of that. I've seen speculation. I don't have any evidence of limitations during that particular night. But, again, if there were, the investigation will certainly tease that out. I've seen open source reporting to that effect. I don't have any information --