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Senator says Niger mission that killed four Americans was illegal

The four U.S. soldiers killed in a deadly militant ambush in Niger last year had been part of an illegal mission they were not trained to complete, Sen. Tim Kaine said Thursday citing a Pentagon report on the tragedy.

The Pentagon was revealing some of its findings at a noon news conference. Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, told CNN’s New Day that he and other senators were briefed Tuesday.

The Virginia Democrat said senators were told the troops initially attempted to hunt for a high-ranking Islamic State militant before switching to an advisory capacity with Nigerien forces.

“I believe that the troops who were sadly killed in Niger in October of 2017 were engaged in a mission that they were not authorized by law to participate in and that they were not trained to participate in,” Kaine told CNN. “And that is a significant reason that they tragically lost their lives.”

The battle near the village of Tongo Tongo prompted the investigation into whether the soldiers had sufficient weaponry, ammunition and training for the mission in the west African nation. The investigation was led by U.S. Africa Command’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier Jr.

The four soldiers were part of a joint U.S.-Niger patrol that had been asked to assist a second American commando team that was hunting for a senior Islamic State member. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said the troops had not expected to encounter enemy forces at the time of the attack.

Officials have said the investigation doesn’t actually link the failure to get appropriate approval for the initial kill-or-capture mission to the deadly ambush that came much later.

Killed were Army Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Fla.; Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, 35, of Puyallup, Wash.; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga.

“The whole thing was a screwed-up mess,” Wright’s father, Arnold Wright, told the Associated Press. Wright, who also was briefed on the report, said the Army may be pinning the blame on lower-ranking soldiers and not accepting command responsibility.

Johnson was initially declared missing when French helicopters evacuated the soldiers following the attack. Nigerian military personnel later recovered his body at the scene.

Johnson’s death was at the center of a heated controversy between President Trump and Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., after Trump told Johnson’s pregnant widow that the soldier “knew what he signed up for.” Wilson overheard the phone call and publicly denounced Trump’s remarks.

A propaganda video released by the Islamic State appears to show the deadly militant ambush. Part of the nine-minute video appears to be taken from helmet camera of at least one of the soldiers, who finally falls. The video eventually cuts to footage shot by the militants that shows the soldiers’ bodies.

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