UPDATED, with comment from the Defense Department: When ABC News producer and investigative reporter James Gordon Meek first heard about the deadly terrorist ambush of a U.S. Special Forces team in Niger on Oct. 4, 2017, he said that he and others at the network quickly were met with the Pentagon’s shifting version of events.
“When this happened, we could not get two people to tell us the same story,” Meek told Deadline. “We couldn’t even get people to tell us whether there were 10 or 11 Americans that were ambushed or there were 50.”
As they pursued the story and interviewed family members of the fallen soldiers, they eventually saw a much larger project beyond breaking news updates or a more in-depth news magazine piece. Instead, they created a feature-length documentary, 3212 Un-Redacted, debuting on Hulu on Thursday, Veteran’s Day. View a clip here.
The documentary shows what happened as the unit was caught in a surprise ISIS attack in outside the Saharan village of Tongo Tongo. Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, Sgt. La David Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright were killed, along with five Nigerien soldiers.
The project also follows the family members as they go public in questioning the military’s version of events, pointing to contradictions in initial information they were given.
Their doubts turned into dismay after the Pentagon released a highly redacted report on the ambush that accused the team of going on a rogue mission to capture and kill an ISIS sub commander. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, then leader of the African command, said that 10-man team was “not indicative” other special operations forces on the continent.
The documentary, however, shows that the leader of the Green Beret unit, Capt. Michael Perozeni, actually pushed back when the unit, on a mission to meet with tribal leaders, was instead directed to go after the ISIS leader . Family members, meanwhile, were enraged by Waldhauser’s comments, and point to video footage of the team members as they courageously tried to fight off the ambush.
Meek and the production’s crew gathered at the Motion Picture Association for a screening this week — the first at the D.C. venue since the start of the Covid pandemic — and were joined by family members and others featured in the project.
Among them was Debbie Gannon, the mother of Jeremiah Johnson, who said that she didn’t have any hesitation about participating.
“I want it out there. I want my son and the other boys to be remembered,” she said. “And I want it out there so people know the truth about these boys, not the lies that were spread.”
The documentary suggests that the official Pentagon investigation blamed the unit on the ground to protect more senior level officers who were responsible. Gannon said that hopes that the project will perhaps lead to another investigation “because they investigated themselves, and they are not going to find fault with themselves.”
As the story unfolded and was covered in an array of daily reports, Meek, senior Pentagon reporter Luis Martinez others found that “even basic questions we just couldn’t get the answers to, and people were giving us just wildly different stuff.”
Meek said that in the spring of 2018, his high school school teacher contacted him and said that he had met a family who didn’t think the Army “was being straight with them” about what happened in Tongo Tongo. Meek was put in touch with family members, and he and Martinez found “a confusing vortex of conflicting information. As an investigative reported, that’s a red flag.”
On the first anniversary of the deadly attack, Meek and the crew traveled to Niger and also started interviewing the families for a segment. As they watched the rushes, “everybody was just so floored” by what Gannon and other family members were saying about what happened and their own experience dealing with devastating loss, Meek said. Cindy Galli, ABC News executive producer of investigative projects, along with producer Jenna Millman and senior executive producer Chris Vlasto went to then ABC News president James Goldston to urge him to do more with the footage.
They “just said this is too good to be like just some 17 minute broadcast story, Why don’t you try more? And we’ve never made a film. And he [Goldston] just said, ‘Let’s do this. This is a good idea,'” Meek said.
3212 Un-Redacted features footage of the ambush, including clips from Jeremiah Johnson’s helmet camera that were seized by ISIS terrorists and then edited into a propaganda video posted online.
That footage shows how, even years later, more light is being shed on what happened. A fuller, 45-minute version of the helmet camera footage was eventually recovered by French officials, but it has not been publicly released. It was, however, shown to family members, and Meek went with them to see it in October.
What it shows, Meek said, is Jeremiah Johnson “being shot again and again and again, reloading his weapon firing, calling out targets to Dustin Wright and saying, ‘Seven o’clock. There’s a target at seven o’clock.’ Dustin on the ground. Crawling to Dustin even though he had been shot through the ankle. Any one of us would have been curled up in a ball crying to our mothers, but not Jeremiah. Not Dustin. Not Bryan. Not La David. They fought to the last round, and in fact on the video, you can hear Jeremiah’s last breath.”
The footage also showed that the unit was not equipped to embark on a mission to try to capture an ISIS leader. Meek sees that as contradicting the claim that the unit set out without authorization to undertake such a risky endeavor.
Jeremiah Johnson was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with Valor, but Gannon wonders why he did not receive a Silver Star, as others in the unit received, or Medal of Honor.
She said that she decided to attend the viewing of the 45-minute video “for personal reasons. I needed to watch it, and I wanted to watch it to the end.” She said she could not get through the entire video, but “I’ve learned a lot more.” She described the graphic footage of watching her son being struck by bullets and then getting back up again.
“I was told from one of the other parents that did watch it that he was still moving after seven shots to his body,” Gannon said. “He is still shooting and is still telling Dustin where the shots were coming from. I watched it through the third shot, and he was still shooting, and he was trying to get to Dustin. I think he deserves more than a Silver Star.” She said that Jeremiah’s father is pursuing a higher honor.
Gannon had been talking to Meek as part of his reporting, but said that she “never expected it to end in a documentary. I just wanted the truth. I wanted somebody held accountable so that they wouldn’t do it to other families, and held accountable to what they did. They took away four sons. I wanted to know who it was that took my boy from me.”
Among those also interviewed as Major Alan Van Saun, the company commander, who was reprimanded, even though he was not in Africa at the time of the ambush but in Fort Bragg, SC, to be with his wife as she gave birth to their second child. Meek said that he talked to many more unnamed sources in intelligence, military and law enforcement who “knew the story being told to the families and the public was not true. They really went out of their way in many cases to help me.”
Cynthia King, press officer, Africa, for the office of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, said in a statement to Deadline that the department “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.” King noted that a review of the investigation into the Niger attack validated its findings.
“While no amount of investigation or corrective action will replace our fallen soldiers, we are committed to learning from this incident,” King said. “As a result, we’ve made improvements to training, processes, and execution of future missions.” The Pentagon’s full statement is below.
Pentagon officials have not commented to ABC News, according to the network.
Meek did interview Waldhauser outside a congressional hearing, and he denied that his comments about the investigation were meant to disparage the fallen soldiers.
The project also illuminates the U.S. engagement in Africa, which has gotten far less attention that the U.S. missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
What the unit was doing was establishing partnerships with Nigeriens to wage counterinsurgency and ultimately prevent attacks on U.S. interests, he said.
“Having good relationships in places where Islamic militancy, or amy kind of extremism are growing, is a good thing, as long as you don’t make it look like an occupation. It’s a good thing to build those relationships. It’s called counterterrorism.”
The documentary also captured the experiences of Gold Star families, months and years after TV satellite trucks have left and the news cycle has gone on to other stories.
“Here are four lives, of great heroes, who really wanted to serve their nation and continue living and serving their nation, and they should be here, as Bryan Black’s dad said. Had the captain been listened to, they would be.”
3212 Un-Redacted, directed by Brian Epstein and produced by Meek, Epstein and Andrew Fredericks (who also edited), debuts on Hulu on Thursday, and will be shown on ABC News Live.
UPDATE: The complete statement from Cynthia King, press officer, Africa, in the office of the Secretary of Defense:
“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.”
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