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Investigations Continue Into U.S. Military Deaths In Niger

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week we've been trying to learn more about why four U.S. soldiers died in Niger on October 4. The soldiers were on patrol with local troops, part of an American training mission in Central Africa. On their way back to base, the patrol was ambushed by as many as 50 militants.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And that's about all we know. President Trump didn't make any public comment about the deaths until he was asked about them by a reporter this past Monday. His answer focused on writing to the grieving families and saying he would call them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. A lot of them didn't make calls. I like to call when it's appropriate, when I think I'm able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice. So generally, I would say that I like to call.

KELLY: The president did not talk at all about what happened to the four soldiers. The Defense Department and the FBI are both investigating those deaths.

SHAPIRO: And lawmakers have their own questions. Republicans and Democrats say the administration is not being forthcoming. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Republican of Arizona, spoke to reporters earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MCCAIN: That's not how the system works. We are co-equal branches of government. We should be informed at all times.

SHAPIRO: Joining us now is Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Thank you for making the time.

JACK REED: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Are you satisfied with the information you're getting from this administration?

REED: No. And I think they are - if they're wise, should re-evaluate the way they communicate with members of Congress. And that dissatisfaction is shared not only by myself but by Senator McCain, the chairman of the committee. And we're going to work to repair it and make sure we get the right information.

SHAPIRO: Explain the difference between how a situation like this would typically have been handled in the past and how it's being handled now.

REED: Well, in the past, there would be a senior Department of Defense official who would reach out to the ranking - the chairman, at least, of the relevant committees, in this case Armed Services, and would indicate what they know and be very honest if they were still working on issues and facts and what they didn't know. And that dialogue would continue. This was basically, you know, silence for days after the reported incident and then details started emerging but not in a formal way from the Department of Defense, more from, you know, reporting.

SHAPIRO: So at this point, are there specific questions that you really need answers to, or is it more an issue of wanting open communication and more straightforward information than you had gotten up until now?

REED: Well, it's both. We need answers, and we also need to have communication. Sometimes given the nature of these operations, it can't be open. But there has to be communication. There are specific questions about the, you know, the quality of the intelligence. Why were there no sort of backup forces available quickly? Where else might this situation arise? Are we taking steps to protect our forces in the field from these types of incidents? So there's a lot of questions. And the nature of these incidents are - once you start learning about them, there are more questions.

SHAPIRO: You obviously have these specific questions about this incident where four men were killed. Are you satisfied that you know enough about the U.S. mission in Niger generally and what American troops are doing there?

REED: That is one area where we also want to probe and not just in Niger but in other parts of Africa and other parts of the world. For decades, we've had training arrangements with countries in Africa and in other parts of the world, and they've been basically done in benign areas. And we've - particularly with our special forces, they've gone in. They've parked, and they've trained. And I think what we're seeing now is kind of that mindset of, you know, the '80s, '90s and even before, hasn't come to grips with the reality of some of these ISIS operations which are able to infiltrate into areas and conduct these types of attacks.

SHAPIRO: So Committee Chairman Senator McCain said earlier this week that subpoenas might be necessary. Do you share that view? And if so, what do you think the next step is?

REED: Well, the next step is getting a detailed briefing from the Department of Defense on all the information they know, on all the steps they're taking and also indicate clearly what they're still trying to determine. I don't think we're at the point yet now where we need to issue a subpoena, but the chairman I think has indicated in his remarks how serious he feels this issue is.

SHAPIRO: Do you have a sense of whether this is a case of the Defense Department trying to shut Congress out or not being staffed up enough or just not knowing how these things are typically done? Do you know what's going on?

REED: No, it's not as clear as it should be. In fact, it could be a combination of all the factors you indicated, but it's not the kind of behavior and relationship that can continue. We've got to be briefed on a regular basis, particularly when an incident of this nature comes about.

SHAPIRO: Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island is the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. Thank you for joining us today.

REED: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.