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AfriCom Two-Star Named to Lead Niger Ambush Investigation

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, Jr. speaks as the guest speaker of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa 242nd Army Birthday Ball, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, June 17, 2017. (U.S. Air National Guard photo/Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond)
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, Jr. speaks as the guest speaker of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa 242nd Army Birthday Ball, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, June 17, 2017. (U.S. Air National Guard photo/Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond)

Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, a career infantry officer and Iraq veteran, will lead the investigation into the Oct. 4 ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers, wounded two others and also killed five Nigerien troops.

Cloutier, the chief of staff to Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command, will take over the Article 15-6 fact-finding investigation into the firefight in western Niger near the Mali border, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said Thursday.

The FBI is also looking into implications for national security of the ambush that killed Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia.

The four were part of a 12-man team from the Army 3rd Special Forces Group that joined a patrol with 30 Nigerien troops. During the firefight, Sgt. La David Johnson became separated from the rest of the group. His body was not recovered until two days after the initial attack.

Dunford put no timeline on the investigation but said at a news conference Tuesday that once the results are in, his top priority will be to share the findings with the families of the fallen.

"That's my primary target audience right now. We'll address it fully" in public once the families are informed, he said.

Under their rules of engagement, the 12 U.S. soldiers on the patrol "were authorized to accompany Nigerien forces when the prospects for enemy contact was unlikely," Dunford said Tuesday.

On Thursday, he told reporters traveling with him to South Korea that he had read the mission assignment, "and it was a patrol to go out and identify information about the local area."

NBC News and other outlets, citing defense officials, have reported that the patrol diverted from its reconnaissance mission to pursue an extremist leader thought to be in the area.

However, Dunford said the patrol "was not targeted or focused on any specific Islamic State leader or location, because that would have made the mission enemy contact more likely. The estimate at the time was enemy contact was not likely," Military Times reported.

Dunford said, "What I don't know, and what the investigation will find out is -- did they have a change of mission at any given point? If so, how did they get that change of mission? Who approved that change of mission? What was that mission?

"Those are all things that I am seeing bits and pieces of but, honestly, I wouldn't say any of it is fact until the investigation is complete," he said.

In remarks to reporters at the White House Wednesday, President Donald Trump said he did not personally authorize the Niger patrol but said he had given commanders there wide discretion to conduct operations, as he has in other regions.

"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, and we're beating ISIS very badly," Trump said. "You look at what's happened in the Middle East -- we have done more in eight months than the previous administration has done in many years."

"We have decimated ISIS in the Middle East. They go to Africa, they go to places. When they get there, we meet them there. That's what goes on. It's a tough business. It's a tough war, but we are winning it," he said.

"With that being said, my generals and my military, they have decision-making ability. As far as the incident that we're talking about, I've been seeing it just like you've been seeing it. I've been getting reports. They have to meet the enemy, and they meet them tough, and that's what happens," Trump said.

Also on Thursday, defense officials briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Niger ambush in closed session.

In a joint statement after the session, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the committee chairman, and Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the ranking member, did not disclose details of the briefing but said, "This was an important opportunity to get answers to our questions about the attack, as well as the broader regional security situation."

Last week, McCain threatened to issue subpoenas unless the Defense Department was more forthcoming in sharing information with Congress.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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