Four Americans gunned down in a withering, four-hour firefight in the Sahara -- part of a 10-man Green Beret team said to have gone rogue and been ambushed by ISIS while hunting down a top terrorist to "capture or kill" -- were ill-prepared, poorly trained and "not indicative" of their high-performing peers on the continent, U.S. military officials said. And in the strangest twist of all, they had been trying to locate an American aid worker who was being held hostage by the terrorist commander they were trying to kill.
Unraveling the truth behind the deaths of 4 U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Africa leads to evidence of a coverup at the highest levels of the Army.
That story, as presented by the Pentagon, sounded like an outlandish tale -- but it was all offered as fact by U.S. generals whose stiff uniforms sparkled with the glint of their stars and ribbons as they sat in the Pentagon's press room in the spring of 2018.
Yet almost none of the major allegations made public that day by United States Africa Command's (AFRICOM) top two generals against Operational Detachment-Alpha 3212 -- the team of special operations soldiers attacked by ISIS on Oct. 4, 2017, in Tongo Tongo, Niger -- turned out to be true, according to an extensive ABC News investigation.
The results of ABC News' three-year investigation into what happened at Tongo Tongo are revealed in the new documentary feature, "3212 UN-REDACTED," coming to Hulu on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
The official story presented to the public and to the families of the four American soldiers killed outside the tiny village in the Sahel region of Africa was ultimately laid out in a highly redacted 268-page report by AFRICOM, which was handed in binders to the grieving relatives almost two years after they buried their loved ones.
ABC News filmed the families of the fallen soldiers -- Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black and Sgt. LaDavid Johnson -- for three years in their search for the truth that has been hidden from them by senior commanders and covered up in the multitudes of blotted-out names and sentences in the long AFRICOM report. Those obscured details were classified "Secret" by then-commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser until the year 2043.
The documentary scrutinizes the core findings stated by Gen. Waldhauser and other Pentagon officials, as well as significant facts never disclosed to the families of the fallen or the American public, such as the CIA's involvement in the events and the ground commander's push-back on the ill-fated missions. It features interviews with the immediate family members of all four soldiers who fell in battle as they faced a 10-to-1 ratio of jihadi fighters to American troops, as well as with military whistleblowers including the team's own company commander in Niger and a former assistant secretary of defense overseeing U.S. special operations at the time.
"There's been a lot of ink spilled on this incident in Niger, and I think a lot of mischaracterization of what actually occurred," retired Col. Mark Mitchell, a decorated Green Beret who was the acting assistant secretary of defense in 2017, said in an interview in the documentary.
"That's the only damn thing I asked them to do from the very beginning -- just tell me the truth," Arnold Wright, a former Army infantry officer whose son Dustin Wright was killed in the ambush, said in the film. "The Army let me down. They let my son down. And then they lied about it."
"Stuff that they said didn't add up"
Almost from the beginning, the four fallen soldiers' families -- who have seven veterans among them with military, intelligence or law enforcement experience -- were suspicious about the story of the ambush in the desert offered by military officials, who alleged the team was operating without the approval of senior commanders and failed to assess the risks of taking on a top ISIS commander.
"It's just stuff that they said didn't add up at all," recalled Sgt. LaDavid Johnson's young widow, Myeshia, the mother of their three children. "Everybody came telling me different things."
She wasn't alone. Dustin Wright's older brother Will was an Army combat veteran of Afghanistan who was told his Green Beret brother was killed by mortars. But Will took the difficult and unusual step of examining Dustin's body in the casket upon his return to Lyons, Georgia.
"What a mortar does to the human body, shrapnel and fire, is a lot different and it's much more graphic and sinister than small arms fire. He was not charred flesh, he was a man who had stood his ground and was fallen by small arms fire, bullets riddling his body," Will Wright said in the film, his voice warbling slightly as he spoke.
Like Myeshia Johnson, Will Wright said he couldn't shake the feeling that "something didn't add up."
Seven months after the gunfight, Gen. Waldhauser laid out AFRICOM's litany of allegations about the ambushed team, ODA 3212, and its Green Beret commander, Capt. Mike Perozeni, in a press conference disclosing the findings of an investigation performed by his command.
But Mitchell, the former top civilian at the Pentagon overseeing U.S. special operations, as well as others in interviews featured in the film, contradicted Waldhauser's findings of a team gone rogue and said that the team's true objective was a recon mission to find and track -- not capture or kill -- ISIS subcommander Doundoun Cheffou.
ODA 3212 was assisted by a pair of Nigeriens working for the CIA with their own vehicle, whom the Agency had trained to use a cellular surveillance device inside their white SUV to lock onto Cheffou's cell phone, according to intelligence officials and Special Forces soldiers in Niger. Cheffou's phone had been detected by a U.S. military drone near a village close to Mali, but the CIA operatives with the Special Forces team failed to detect the signal -- so the convoy returned south, almost reaching their base in Oulluam by late afternoon on Oct. 3, 2017.
AFRICOM never disclosed the CIA's limited role in the mission to the families, family members said.
"The only reason why they would accuse Capt. Perozeni and the team of lying and mischaracterizing [the mission plan] is to somehow absolve the chain of command above them and basically say, because they went out under false pretenses, they put themselves in a bad situation and are therefore responsible for what happened," Mitchell said.
As ODA 3212 neared Oulluam, the Cheffou cell phone was again detected by a drone in a different, more remote location on the Niger-Mali border, more than a dozen military and intelligence sources told ABC News. ODA 3212 was then ordered to make a U-turn and drive back north through the night to support another team, ODA 3216, which was flying in from a U.S. base in Arlit, Niger, to raid the ISIS campsite where the signal was emanating from.
It was ODA 3216 that was tasked by their command with searching the campsite while 3212 stood ready in a backup role, according to AFRICOM and commanders involved in the missions. But ODA 3216 was forced to abort its mission mid-air because of headwinds that had substantially depleted their helicopters' fuel, so Capt. Perozeni's ODA 3212 was ordered to be the main raiding force with no backup of their own.
What happened next to ODA 3212, and why, was hugely significant -- but the information was omitted from AFRICOM's thick report and family briefings, the ABC News investigation found.
Capt. Perozeni repeatedly objected to being tasked by his higher commands with raiding Cheffou's campsite -- an odd move if he had been on an unauthorized mission to kill Cheffou, his company commander, Maj. Alan Van Saun, said in the documentary.
The redacted AFRICOM report said only that Perozeni had stated "his preference that the force return to base." In fact, as those who spoke to Perozeni that night and other investigators confirmed to ABC News, Perozeni's objections were adamantly stated in multiple calls and texts to superiors at his company headquarters. His concerns were based on being lightly armed, having no backup force available and no medevac capability, and operating alongside 35 Nigerien soldiers who had not slept in 24 hours and were out of food and water.
But Perozeni was told that his battalion commander, Lt. Col. David Painter in Chad, had overruled him and that the changed mission would go forward.
"They were told to go anyway," Jeremiah Johnson's mother Debbie Gannon said in the film. "They didn't care that there was no backup for those boys."
The families of the fallen soldiers all say that in numerous family briefings by AFRICOM, they were told nothing about Perozeni's objections to the missions. The briefings were all led by Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, Gen. Waldhauser's own chief of staff, who led the probe into the incident -- which numerous officials said was a clear conflict of interest. The families said Cloutier had heaped blame on Perozeni for a reckless mission that was concealed from senior commanders such as Lt. Col. Painter and Col. Bradley Moses.
"I was left with the impression that this guy [Perozeni] was a screw-up. And he screwed up and carried my son off and got him killed -- because that's what I was led to believe," Arnold Wright said. "And my anger was directed toward somebody completely innocent of what they told me he did."
Henry Black, a retired Marine, combat vet, and father of Bryan Black, said that Perozeni was trying to avert disaster.
"It's clear that if he had been listened to, my son, and Jeremiah, LaDavid and Dustin would be here today," Black said.
Col. Moses told ABC News that, contrary to what AFRICOM claimed, he was informed by his subordinate, Lt. Col. Painter, of ODA 3212 taking the lead in searching the ISIS campsite -- but not that Capt. Perozeni was protesting Painter's orders because of the risks.
"If someone told me that Mike Perozeni had concerns on his ability to execute the mission, I would have called him directly on a SAT phone ... because nothing beats the ground truth if it's coming from the ground commander," Moses said in a phone interview last year.
But according to Moses, those concerns never reached his ears, and the mission proceeded before dawn on Oct. 4. The team entered the campsite and found that it was empty, with nothing left behind that had intelligence value.
On ODA 3212's return to Oulluam, they stopped for water in a tiny village called Tongo Tongo, where they spent an hour and met with a village elder -- who intelligence officials later concluded had ISIS ties and deliberately stalled the team, intelligence officials told ABC News. As the Americans and their Nigerien partner force left the village, the convoy came under attack.
"Protecting the command"
According to Gen. Waldhauser at his 2018 Pentagon press conference, the tragedy that followed was due in part to substandard soldiering, and that prior to the three missions executed between Oct. 3-4, ODA 3212 "did not conduct [sic] those basic soldier level skills ... that are really necessary to go on an operation such as this."
Waldhauser said that the men on the decimated team were simply not as competent as their peers.
"The special operators on the continent are serving well. They do high-risk missions. And based on my observations, this particular -- this particular team is not indicative of what they do," Waldhauser said, looking into TV cameras.
"That was infuriating to me," recalled Karen Black, mother of ODA 3212's Bryan Black, a chess and online poker champ who was seen as a model Green Beret by his fellow soldiers. "And it's like, 'Oh, my gosh.' I didn't even finish listening to the news conference. I turned it off. I couldn't stand to even look at him after I heard that. It's like, 'How can you possibly say that?'"
"I think it's an unfair characterization of an ODA that found itself in a bad situation, and did the best that they could," Mitchell agreed in an interview for the documentary.
Maj. Van Saun, the Green Beret team's company commander, said in interviews that he was stung by Waldhauser's disparaging comments about his men, including the four who made the ultimate sacrifice.
"It hurt really bad to hear that," Van Saun said. "Because it was clear that a statement like that was protecting the command and, in a way, trying to protect the community, while badmouthing a team that had the odds overwhelmingly stacked against them."
ABC News' investigation revealed that the 10-man American team fought with extraordinary valor as they faced more than 100 enemy fighters. All but one received valor awards or commendations in 2019, according to U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
In fact, Army records obtained by ABC News show that Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright was recommended by 3rd Special Forces Group for the nation's highest valor award, the Medal of Honor, for going back to defend his comrade, Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah Johnson, after Johnson was shot and fell as they tried to break contact with the enemy on foot. But Wright was downgraded to a posthumous Silver Star by Gen. Tony Thomas, commander of all special operations.
It's not clear why Wright's medal was downgraded, but his father Arnold noted that such awards are presented at White House ceremonies, which brings additional scrutiny to the underlying incident.
Gen. Thomas, who has since retired from the Army, declined requests for comment. Other soldiers' valor awards were downgraded by Thomas as well, including an award for Capt. Perozeni.
"Where is everybody?"
In 2018, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack in a propaganda video that included selective clips from Jeremiah Johnson's helmet cam, which his killers had pilfered from his body. It showed Johnson, Black and Wright firing their M4A1 carbines from the cover of their blue Toyota SUV after finding themselves alone and facing an increasing torrent of enemy fire from nearby tree lines outside the village of Tongo Tongo. ISIS emphasized their grisly deaths with graphic video of their stripped and bloodied bodies.
"We saw Bryan Black fall first, watched Dustin and Jeremiah try to pull him back to safety, realizing that Bryan had lost his life," Ray Gannon, Jeremiah's stepfather and a retired FBI special agent, said in an interview. "Jeremiah and Dustin tried to leave the area but there was no support fire from the other team members."
ABC News has learned that during an operation last August in Mali, when French Special Forces killed Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of ISIS in the Greater Sahara, they also recovered Johnson's camera containing the unedited 45-minute video, which no one in the U.S. government had ever seen. A Green Beret commander showed the footage to each of the four families just last month. All four fallen soldiers are seen fighting, and Johnson appears to lead his teammates by calling out targets he has spotted. He is also seen attempting unsuccessfully to radio desperate reports that he, Black and Wright have each been wounded, according to officials and family members who watched the full video.
Wright and Johnson -- in an act of unquestionable valor -- exposed themselves to sustained fire to pull Black to safety behind their truck after he was shot in the head and collapsed. Contrary to a previous conclusion that Black was killed instantly, in the unedited video obtained last August his chest can be seen heaving. Johnson checks his vital signs and calls out his name, and the two soldiers initially decide to stay with him rather than withdraw on foot as they realize they have no radio link to the rest of their team, which had left the initial contact site.
"Where is everybody?" Wright asks at one point.
After Johnson and Wright finally scramble at least 100 meters away from their truck amid a deafening volley of fire from dozens of ISIS fighters, Johnson shouts, "Ho! Ly! F**k!" as they briefly take cover behind a disabled pickup. Family members who watched the video said Johnson continues fighting even as he is hit again and again by bullets, finally telling his wounded comrade he has been "shot seven times."
Some family members say the full video, which AFRICOM has classified "Secret" and will not be released, provided them solace and emotional relief. Just this week, on Wednesday, U.S. Special Operations Command provided a statement to the Army Times saying that valor awards for Johnson and Wright "could be reevaluated" because of what the 45-minute unedited helmet camera video reveals.
While Johnson, Wright, and Black were under fire, Capt. Perozeni and his men had immediately realized that their vehicle had not followed them out of the kill zone. Two pairs of Green Berets argued to go back, then set off on foot to try to locate them -- but were soon pinned down by enemy fire, according to the soldiers' accounts.
As the enemy moved in on motorcycles and pickups with mounted heavy machine guns, the last two remaining vehicles returned fire, with mechanic LaDavid Johnson using an M240 machine gun, a sniper rifle, and his M4 carbine to suppress the advancing enemies. Capt. Perozeni's vehicle lurched forward with Staff Sgt. Brent Bartels behind the wheel. Team members told ABC News that both men saw LaDavid climb behind the wheel of the other U.S. truck.
But as Perozeni's vehicle departed, Perozeni was shot in the side and the driver, Bartels, was shot in the elbow. LaDavid dropped to the ground under fire and ran south with two Nigerien soldiers, who were then both shot and killed. LaDavid continued to run, and made it 900 meters to a single thorny tree, where he took cover and fired five rounds from his rifle before being killed by ISIS fighters with AK47s, according to accounts.
A call for help by the team was answered not by U.S. forces -- who ABC News confirmed were, as AFRICOM itself said in its report, repeatedly denied permission to go immediately to Tongo Tongo by Lt. Col. David Painter's battalion headquarters -- but by French Special Forces four hours into the gunfight. American forces did not arrive in the village until three hours after the six surviving members of ODA 3212 and a military contractor had been flown out by the French helicopters. ODA 3216 recovered the bodies of Jeremiah Johnson, Bryan Black and Dustin Wright.
The Woodke connection
The film also reveals other instances of confusing or false statements by military officials involved in the incident and the investigations, as well as other information that was never shared with the families.
The reason the CIA wanted to help the Green Berets locate Doundoun Cheffou's cell phone during the initial recon mission, according to U.S. intelligence officials, was that the ISIS commander had been suspected of holding an American Christian aid worker, Jeffery Woodke, since he was kidnapped in Niger in October 2016 -- so finding Cheffou could eventually lead to finding Woodke, CIA officers believed.
But the Green Berets were not told of any such suspicion about Cheffou's link to Woodke, Army officers including Maj. Van Saun told ABC News. Many were stunned to hear Gen. Waldhauser tie the ill-fated ODA 3212 mission to the Woodke case.
"I think it's important to underscore why, then, was that mission undertaken? Why was it so important to send those people up there?" Waldhauser said at the Pentagon press conference in 2018. "We've had an American citizen by the name of Jeffery Woodke who has been captured and held hostage somewhere in that area for the last year and a half, and there was a possibility that what they might find at that target would be a piece of the puzzle of the whole-of-government approach, to try to return an American who's been held hostage."
Two Special Forces officers also told ABC News that Lt. Col. Painter made a similar claim about the search for intelligence on Woodke in private conversations with colleagues last year.
But intelligence, military, FBI, and Trump White House officials have told ABC News that despite Waldhauser's statements, the mission was never pegged to or driven by the CIA or by any efforts to find or recover Woodke. Neither the CIA nor Jeffery Woodke were ever raised in family briefings by AFRICOM, the relatives all say, and Woodke's name appears nowhere in AFRICOM's 268-page report, former Pentagon senior official Mark Mitchell and others have told ABC News.
"I had never heard that," Mitchell said in the film, regarding the Woodke connection. "And I don't recall that ever being part of the instructions that were given to Capt. Perozeni and his team. So I'm not sure where that characterization came from."
"When ODA 3212 left the wire on their reconnaissance mission, never was there an understanding that it related to Jeffery Woodke," said Maj. Van Saun. "It wasn't in any of the mission plans. It was never told to me after the fact." Several other officers involved in planning and executing the missions, including Col. Moses, also confirmed that to ABC News.
Painter, since 2018, has declined more than a dozen ABC News requests for comment, including for this story.
Woodke's wife, Els Woodke, said she has been told by U.S. hostage recovery officials that the tragedy in Tongo Tongo had no connection to her husband's case.
"If this [mission] was indeed on my husband's behalf, I would have to say, 'Thank you so very much.' Still, I am very sorry it happened," she said in the documentary. "It's a terrible burden to know that people [could] die in the attempt to rescue my husband ... I don't take that lightly."
Woodke remains in captivity, sources say.
"It's all about 'The Club'"
Rather than be commended for surviving the gunfight in Tongo Tongo, the seven American survivors, who also included the contractor, instead found themselves under investigation by AFRICOM within days of the ambush -- and their commanders who ordered them to carry out their missions did not apparently defend their actions, they said. ABC News has learned that two other Tongo Tongo-related investigations followed AFRICOM's, one by U.S. Army Special Operations Command and the other by U.S. Special Operations Command, neither of which the families and public were ever told about.
Maj. Van Saun, the company commander, was reprimanded -- even though he was some 5,000 miles away at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, at the time of the ambush. ODA 3212 commander Capt. Mike Perozeni received two reprimands, which were eventually rescinded. The team sergeant, another senior non-commissioned officer, and the company intelligence warrant officer also received reprimands. Each retired from service and Van Saun left the Army -- though numerous officials such as Mitchell say his record should be cleared.
"[Van Saun] was a scapegoat to protect higher officers from being punished," retired Special Operations Command-Africa commander Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc said in an interview for the film last year. "It's all about 'The Club,' all about protecting the establishment. It's all about, you know, circling the wagons around the senior leaders."
Van Saun's boss, Lt. Col. David Painter, who from Chad had overruled Capt. Perozeni's objections to carrying out the mission at the campsite, and Painter's boss, Col. Bradley Moses, located in Germany, did not receive career-ending punishment, despite being deeply involved in the decision-making about ODA 3212's missions.
Pentagon officials declined to comment on the ABC News investigation when asked in detail on numerous occasions since January 2019, including dozens of questions sent to Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier of AFRICOM and to officials with U.S. Army Special Operations Command and the Office of the Secretary of Defense in late 2020. The AFRICOM report in its entirety was deleted from the Department of Defense's own websites two months after its release in June 2019, according to cached copies on the nonprofit site Archive.org.
However, following the publication of this story, Pentagon spokesperson Cindy King on Saturday provided a statement (below) that the Department of Defense had "promised an accurate, fair investigation" in 2018, and that a review ordered by then-Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan was delivered in May 2019, "validating the [AFRICOM] investigation."
In a brief interview with ABC News in a congressional hallway in 2019, AFRICOM's Gen. Waldhauser denied his investigators had withheld information from the families that Capt. Perozeni had pushed back on the missions. He also said he did not intend to hurt the families with his disparaging public remarks about the team.
"Well, maybe he didn't mean to hurt us -- but he did. And not just as a Gold Star mother who's lost a child, but as an American," Terri Criscio, Dustin Wright's mother and herself an Army veteran, said in an interview for the film. "Why would you throw your people under the bus? Why would you blame your men who were following your orders and who you're responsible for?"
"Honor those whose souls are forever changed"
Col. Bradley Moses retired this year after his promotion to brigadier general had been denied by the U.S. Senate without comment. Lt. Col. David Painter's promotion to colonel also was denied by the Senate.
Roger Cloutier, in the meantime, was promoted to lieutenant general.
"My first responsibility was to the families of the fallen," Cloutier said at the 2018 Pentagon press briefing.
But the families say he and Gen. Waldhauser failed them by disparaging their loved ones' valor and honor by falsely accusing ODA 3212 of a rogue and reckless operation -- rather than missions they were ordered to carry out, against their captain's better judgment.
If he ever saw Cloutier again, "I'd put something on him he would remember as long as I'm gonna remember my son," Arnold Wright said in an interview, his voice breaking.
In July, Army officials made the unprecedented decision to award LaDavid Johnson and Jeremiah Johnson the status of honorary Green Berets, though both were support soldiers and had never been selected for Special Forces. Family members perceived the ceremony as a form of recompense for the mistreatment of the families.
Jeremiah Johnson's father, J.W. Johnson, said that the documentary "3212 UN-REDACTED" reveals the reality of war and the injustice suffered by ODA 3212 and their loved ones.
"Lives are lost and torn apart. Families receive apologies and sympathy. Some tiny pin for your lapel replaces a son," the elder Johnson said in a statement to ABC News last week. "Those that are responsible smile with their non-genuine words and express what a perfect soldier your son was -- 'was' being the verb. I hope Americans respect Gold Star families and honor those whose souls are forever changed because they lived through a nightmare."
Editor's Note: Below is the full statement provided by Pentagon spokesperson Cindy King following the publication of this story:
"The Department of Defense promised an accurate, fair investigation; the sacrifices of our soldiers and their families deserve no less. The Niger investigation was extensive and looked into the broader set of circumstances involved in the incident.
AFRICOM completed its initial AR 15-6 investigation report on March 2018 with a set of findings and recommendations. The Secretary of Defense then directed the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, AFRICOM, SOCOM and the Department of the Army to review the report and recommendations and provide him with a 120-day update on plans for corrective actions and individual accountability; he ordered a subsequent 90-day progress report due in December 2018.
Acting Secretary Shanahan directed an independent, internal review of the plan for individual accountability associated with the Niger attack to ensure the highest level of understanding of the circumstances surrounding this tragic event and a full accounting of the process and findings. Gen. Brown completed that review in May 2019, validating the 15-6 investigation.
We provided periodic notifications to the families and Congress throughout the process.
While no amount of investigation or corrective action will replace our fallen soldiers, we are committed to learning from this incident. As a result, we've made improvements to training, processes, and execution of future missions."