Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the media shouldn't question the military response to the Oct. 4 ambush in Niger that took the lives of four U.S. soldiers, nor expect answers to what happened before the Pentagon is ready to provide them.
"One point I would make having seen some of the news reports, the U.S. military does not leave its troops behind and I would just ask you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once," Mattis told journalists at the Pentagon on Thursday. "And I would also ask you don't confuse your need for accurate information with our ability to provide it immediately in a situation like this."
Three Green Berets and a fourth soldier were killed while accompanying Nigerien forces for a train, advise and assist mission where the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram have been active.
The fourth soldier was missing and found dead after a two-day search by U.S. Africa Command and allies including the French. Niger borders Mali and Nigeria, hotspots for violent extremism, and the U.S. has increased its presence in the region in recent years.
In the days since the attack, lawmakers have questioned whether the soldiers were receiving adequate support and have asked in a general sense what the U.S. is doing in the West African nation.
Mattis explained that about 1,000 U.S. troops are in the country training local forces.
"Mostly we're providing refueling support, intelligence support, surveillance support, but also we have troops on the ground," Mattis said. "Their job is to help the people in the region learn how to defend themselves. We call it foreign internal defense training and we actually do these kind of missions by, with and through our allies and the loss of our troops is under investigation."
That investigation will look into the circumstances that led to the deaths, and is something that the military does whenever something like this happens.
"The French response included armed fighter aircraft, armed helicopter gunships. A medevac helo that lifted out our wounded. We did have a contract aircraft that lifted out our killed in action. Sgt. [La David] Johnson's body was found later by local nationals and it says something that they would then endeavor to get the body back to us which shows the relationship we have in this area.
"I don't care if it's in the a car accident, in DoD we investigate the circumstances surrounding and see how we can address the very questions you brought up about what can we do in the future. At the same time, war is war and these terrorists are conducting war on innocent people. Of all religions. They're conducting war on innocent people who have no way to defend themselves. I would just tell you that in this specific case contact was considered unlikely. But there's a reason we have U.S. Army soldiers there and not the Peace Corps, because we carry guns and so it's a reality, part of the danger that our troops face in these counter terrorist campaigns."
Mattis declined to comment on the controversy over President Trump's phone conversation with Johnson's widow, in which a Democratic congresswoman is claiming the president spoke insensitively.
"We honor or fallen in America and that's all the more I'll say about the Gold Star families," he said