WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was livid last month when he summoned top military officials to a video conference at the Pentagon to press them about an investigation into a 2017 ambush in Niger that killed four Americans on a Green Beret team. His anger, Pentagon officials said, came from seeing news reports that junior officers were being reprimanded for the botched Niger mission while the officers directly above them were not.
Days later, a senior officer who had largely escaped punishment was told he would be reprimanded. Another senior officer’s actions before and around the time of the mission were also under new scrutiny.
And this week, Capt. Michael Perozeni, a more junior officer who had received much of the public blame for the mission received word from the Army: His reprimand was rescinded.
The turnaround is evidence of the troubled search for accountability in an incident that left a small team of underequipped and poorly supported American soldiers in the African scrub to be overrun by fighters loyal to the Islamic State. More than a year after the ambush — the American military’s largest loss of life in Africa since the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Somalia — top military leaders continue to battle over how to apportion blame and who should be held accountable.
The Pentagon still has not issued a final summation laying out who bears responsibility for the events leading up to the ambush. An initial Defense Department investigation, begun 14 months ago and partially released in May, found widespread problems across all levels of the military counterterrorism operation, but focused in particular on the actions of junior officers leading up to the ambush.
Punishments are in legal limbo, as are, apparently, commendations for bravery. An unredacted version of the investigation, promised in May, has yet to be delivered.
And unlike two naval collisions last year in the Pacific that led within weeks to the removal of the commander of the Navy’s largest operational battle force, no top generals have been ushered out the door in the Niger case — an example officials say that Mr. Mattis has been quick to point out.
Nigerien soldiers trained on the outskirts of the capital, Niamey. American Special Operations forces that partner with local allies have been criticized for risk-taking.CreditFinbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times
Cmdr. Candice Tresch, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in a statement on Thursday that the Defense Department has “made improvements at all levels” after the ambush. But she offered no further details, citing the continuing investigation.
The slow pace of accountability has infuriated Mr. Mattis, who officials say is dissatisfied with the punishments given largely to junior officers. The reprimands were first reported by The Times after a longer Times investigation into the ambush. The only senior officer to receive a letter of reprimand so far is Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks, the head of Special Operations forces in Africa, who was already planning to retire.
The delays have led to recriminations within the military’s individual fiefs. Army Gen. Tony Thomas, the leader of Special Operations Command — which includes Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other American commandos around the world — has complained that his troops have been singled out for fault. He has also leveled criticism that Pentagon leaders are protecting United States Africa Command, which oversees missions across the continent.
In a memo to Mr. Mattis on Oct. 1, General Thomas blamed bad relations between Africa Command and the last commander of American commandos in Africa, Brig. Gen. Donald C. Bolduc, as one reason for the failed mission. The memo, obtained by The Times, said the internal tensions had “hindered the ability of commanders, at both levels, to understand, communicate, assess and mitigate risk as events transpired” in October 2017.
Animosity erupted during the video conference at the Pentagon last month between Mr. Mattis; Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Army chief of staff; Mark Esper, the Army secretary; Owen West, the military’s top civilian Special Operations policy official; and Paul C. Ney Jr., the Pentagon general counsel. General Thomas called in from his headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
Mr. Mattis wasn’t the only one angry, Defense Department officials said. Army officials complained to aides that Mr. Mattis and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had contributed to the morass by allowing Africa Command, whose leader, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, is also a Marine, to essentially investigate itself by appointing General Waldhauser’s own chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., to conduct the inquiry.
The blowback from the video conference was almost immediate. Maj. Gen. Edwin J. Deedrick Jr., the officer in charge of administering internal punishments, was quickly told by Army leaders to re-examine some of the reprimands from the investigation.
Included in the initial batch of reprimands was one for Captain Perozeni, the leader of the team in Niger that came under attack. Africa Command leaders singled out Captain Perozeni and another junior officer in the early public accounting of the ambush for having “mischaracterized” the mission in a preliminary planning document sent to superiors as a trip to meet with tribal leaders, not a counterterrorism effort.
But in a classified version of the report, investigators found that Captain Perozeni had pushed back on orders to continue the mission as a capture-or-kill raid on a local militant. Captain Perozeni said he did not have the necessary equipment or intelligence and asked that the Green Beret team be allowed to return to base.
Instead, a battalion commander based in Chad, Lt. Col. David Painter, ordered the team to continue. They did, and were attacked by dozens of Islamic State militants.
During the ambush, which lasted more than five hours, there were multiple acts of heroism, according to the May report and video from cameras mounted on the men’s helmets.
Captain Perozeni tried to hold together a unit that had communications problems, lightly armored vehicles and unreliable Nigerien forces as allies. At one point, Captain Perozeni was shot and thrown from the bed of his truck. Its driver, Sgt. First Class Brent Bartels, was shot in the arm but kept going. Wounded, he turned around and went back to get Captain Perozeni.
The initial reprimands, which also singled out other junior officers and enlisted men, skipped Colonel Painter and Col. Brad Moses, who was the commander of the Green Beret group in Western Africa at the time.
After the video conference at the Pentagon, General Deedrick informed Colonel Painter that he would be receiving a letter of reprimand. Colonel Moses, a rising star in the Special Operations community, has not been reprimanded, although officials said the Army is now taking a harder look at his actions.
Maj. Alan Van Saun, Captain Perozeni’s company commander, who was home on paternity leave during the ambush but had been reprimanded for what the investigation cited as insufficient training of his unit, this week received a permanent letter of reprimand — a document that essentially ended his career.
Although the investigation continues, General Thomas has decided to oversee the awards for Captain Perozeni’s team in what officials called an effort to set the record straight on the battle. In recent weeks General Thomas flew to Fort Bragg, N.C., the home of the Green Beret team, to ensure that the award citations were being prepared.
At Fort Bragg, General Thomas watched a video of the ambush made from images on the helmet camera of one of the dead soldiers. He read through the surviving soldiers’ statements about the battle.
And he asked whether Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, who was killed trying to rescue a wounded comrade who eventually died, was eligible for the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award.