WASHINGTON — Eight Republican lawmakers attended a White House briefing Monday about explosive allegations that Russia secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American troops in Afghanistan — intelligence the president himself was said to have not been fully read in on.
Members of Congress in both parties called for additional information and consequences for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, even as White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted President Donald Trump had not been briefed on the findings because they hadn’t been verified. Eight Democrats were to be briefed Tuesday morning.
The White House seemed to be setting an unusually high bar for bringing the information to Trump, since it is rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers. McEnany declined to say why a different standard of confidence in the intelligence applied to briefing lawmakers than bringing the information to the president.
Republicans who were in the briefing expressed alarm about Russia’s activities in Afghanistan.
Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger were in the briefing Monday led by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. McCaul and Kinzinger said in a statement that lawmakers were told “there is an ongoing review to determine the accuracy of these reports.”
“If the intelligence review process verifies the reports, we strongly encourage the Administration to take swift and serious action to hold the Putin regime accountable,” they said.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said, “After today’s briefing with senior White House officials, we remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted U.S. forces.”
On CNN, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed the timing of the Democratic briefing but said “it’s no substitute for what they owe the Congress of the United States.” She said “this is as serious as it gets.”
She speculated that Trump wasn’t briefed “because they know it makes him very unhappy, and all roads for him, as you know, lead to Putin. And would he tell Putin what they knew?”
McEnany, for her part, repeatedly stressed that the allegations had not been confirmed.
“There is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations and in effect there are dissenting opinions from some in the intelligence community with regards to the veracity of what’s being reported and the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated,” she said.
The intelligence assessments came amid Trump’s push to withdraw the U.S. from Afghanistan. They suggested Russia was making overtures to militants as the U.S. and the Taliban held talks to end the long-running war. The assessment was first reported by The New York Times, then confirmed to The Associated Press by American intelligence officials and two others with knowledge of the matter.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn told reporters Monday, “I don’t think it’s should be a surprise to anybody that the Taliban’s been trying to kill Americans and that the Russians have been encouraging that, if not providing means to make that happen.”
He added, “Intelligence committees have been briefed on that for months. so has Nancy Pelosi, so has (Democratic Senate leader) Chuck Schumer. So, this is, this is a more leaks and partisanship.”
While Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn’t new, officials said Russian operatives became more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012.
The intelligence community has been investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three U.S. Marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armoured vehicles as they travelled back to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan, officials told the AP.
Three other U.S. service members were wounded in the attack, along with an Afghan contractor. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter. The officials the AP spoke to also said they were looking closely at insider attacks — sometimes called “green-on-blue” incidents — from 2019 to determine if they are also linked to Russian bounties.
One official said the administration discussed several potential responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step.
The intelligence officials told the AP that Trump was briefed on the bounty matter earlier this year; Trump denied that, tweeting Sunday that neither he nor Vice-President Mike Pence had been briefed. Trump tweeted Sunday night he was just told intelligence officials didn’t report the information to him because they didn’t find it credible.
The intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter insisted on anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive matter.
The White House National Security Council wouldn’t confirm the assessments but said the U.S. receives thousands of intelligence reports daily that are subject to strict scrutiny.
Trump’s Democratic general election rival, former Vice-President Joe Biden, used an online fundraiser Monday to hammer the president for a “betrayal” of American troops in favour of “an embarrassing campaign of deferring and debasing himself before Putin.”
“I’m disgusted,” Biden told donors, as he recalled his late son Beau’s military service. Families of service members, Biden said, “should never, ever have to worry they’ll face a threat like this: the commander-in-chief turning a blind eye.”
Asked about the reports on the alleged bounties, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday, “These claims are lies.”
“If in the U.S. the special services are continuing to report to the president, I suggest that one be guided by the relevant statement of President Trump, who has already given his assessment of these publications,” he told reporters during a conference call.
John Bolton, an ex-national security adviser who was forced out by Trump last September and has written a tell-all book about his White House tenure, said Sunday it’s “pretty remarkable the president’s going out of his way to say he hasn’t heard anything about it. One asks, why would he do something like that?”
AP writer Deb Riechmann contributed.
Zeke Miller, James Laporta And Mary Clare Jalonick, The Associated Press