The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Top U.S. general frustrated with media’s ‘drip, drip, drip’ of details on deadly Niger attack

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, speaks to reporters about the Niger operation during a briefing at the Pentagon on Oct. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

SEOUL — The Pentagon’s top general said Thursday that he is “very frustrated with the drip, drip, drip of information” seeping out in the media about an Oct. 4 ambush in Africa that killed four U.S. soldiers and five Nigerien troops, but acknowledged that “everyone is doing their job” in examining it.

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he would prefer to let investigators quietly compile all the information and then brief the families involved before they read accounts of the battle in the media. But the issue is more complicated than that, he said.

“It’s the world as it is,” said Dunford, traveling on a flight from Washington to South Korea. “I’m not making a judgment here. But I would just tell you, my preference would be to get a single document” that outlines the investigation.

Pentagon deployed elite commandos to Niger fearing militants were hunting missing soldier

The ambush, in southwestern Niger, caught a team of 12 soldiers with 3rd Special Forces Group and 30 Nigerien soldiers partnered with them. The body of Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson was not recovered for two days, prompting elite senior U.S. officials to deploy elite U.S. commandos with Joint Special Operations Command.

Four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger on Oct. 4, in an attack near Niger’s border with Mali. Here's what we know. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Johnson, 25, was a conventional U.S. soldier who worked as a mechanic and was attached to the 3rd Special Forces Group team. The other U.S. soldiers killed in the operation were Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35; and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29. Staff Sgt. Johnson was a conventional soldier trained to work with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, while Black and Wright were Green Beret soldiers.

The case became politically charged when, after 12 days of silence, President Trump was asked at the White House why he had not addressed the issue. He falsely responded that he had called the families of virtually service member killed during his administration, and did more for the families, and did more for the families than previous presidents.

Twelve days of silence, then a swipe at Obama: How Trump handled four dead soldiers

Sgt. Johnson’s wife, Myeshia, later said that a phone call that Trump made to her was upsetting because he didn’t remember her husband’s name immediately, prompting Trump to defend the call as “very respectful” on Twitter. The widow also said that she was upset that the Army would not let her view her husband’s remains.

Dunford, asked early this week about that allegation, said that a casualty assistance officer may recommend for a family member not to do so in some cases, but that it is ultimately the family’s choice whether to do so.

Dunford said Thursday that he was confident that senior Army officials have checked on the specifics in the case. “In general terms,” he said, he has confidence in how grieving military families are notified of their loss and cared for afterward.

“Having said that, I have been involved in situations where we have not done it exactly right,” the general said. “I have been involved in situations where it took me a year and a half to gain the trust of the family. Multiple meetings, multiple visits, multiple conversations, because everybody grieves differently, and their response to the tragic loss of their loved ones are all different. So, as I always tell people: We have to be on their timeline.”

Read more:

Those who fight our wars don’t write ‘blank checks’ to America. The soldiers slain in Niger knew that.

The private life of Sgt. La David Johnson, the slain soldier ensnared in a Trump controversy

Pentagon defends U.S. troops who searched for slain soldier missing in Niger