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‘Congress and the country need answers now’: Pelosi demands briefing on reported Russian bounty operation

  • June 30, 2020

WASHINGTON – The White House briefed a select group of lawmakers Monday on intelligence reports that Russia offered bounties to Taliban militants for killing American troops in Afghanistan, amid growing questions in Congress about the administration’s apparent inaction on the matter.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer demanded a classified briefing for all House and Senate members Monday, while the White House downplayed the intelligence assessment and said President Donald Trump had not been briefed on the matter because it had not been fully verified. 

“Congress and the country need answers now,” Pelosi, D-Calif, wrote in a letter Monday to Trump’s CIA director and his Director of National Intelligence. 

Pelosi and other lawmakers, including some Republicans, said they want to know why Trump was not briefed on the intelligence assessment and what steps the U.S. can take to punish Moscow for targeting American troops.   

“What we’re talking about here is putting the target crosshairs on the backs of American servicemen and women in uniform,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Sasse said Congress should be focused on two questions:  “No. 1, Who knew what, when, and did the commander-in-chief know? And if not, how the hell not?”

Rep. Andy Kim, a New Jersey Democrat who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, also said the critical question is whether Trump knew or not.

“Either he did know about it and he’s lying, or his administration has de-prioritized something that puts American people’s lives – our servicemembers’ lives – at risk,” Kim said. “I think it’s incredibly damaging that the president is saying that he didn’t know about this.” 

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the White House invited eight lawmakers from the relevant congressional committees to a briefing on Monday. It was not clear if any Democrats were invited or attended.

Rep. Jim Banks, who serves on the Armed Services Committee – publicly confirmed that he participated. After the briefing, Banks blasted the media for disclosing the intelligence, saying the New York Times, which first reported the story, will have blood on their hands for disrupting an investigation into the Russian operation. 

“The real scandal: We’ll likely never know the truth… Because the @nytimes used unconfirmed intel in an ONGOING investigation into targeted killing of American soldiers in order to smear the President. The blood is on their hands,” Banks, who served in the U.S. Navy Reserve and deployed to Afghanistan, wrote on Twitter.

Late Monday,CIA Director Gina Haspel and Trump’s Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe both issued rare public statements on the matter.

Ratcliffe blasted what he called the “selective leaking of any classified information” and suggested the media reports on the alleged Russian operation had interfered with efforts to probe further into the matter. 

“We are still investigating the alleged intelligence referenced in recent media reporting and we will brief the president and congressional leaders at the appropriate time,” Ratcliffe said. “Unfortunately, unauthorized disclosures now jeopardize our ability to ever find out the full story with respect to these allegations.”

Haspel similarly said that leaks “compromise and disrupt” intelligence analysts’ ability to “collect, assess, and ascribe culpability.”

While not commenting directly on the Russia intelligence, she defended the intelligence community’s handling of the issue, including reports that U.S. officials had briefed allied nations while possibly not briefing the president.

“When developing intelligence assessments, initial tactical reports often require additional collection and validation,” Haspel said. “In general, preliminary force protection information is shared throughout the national security community – and with U.S. allies – as part of our ongoing efforts to ensure the safety of coalition forces overseas.”

After speaking with Haspel and Ratcliffe, Pelosi said she still had “many serious questions” about what the White House is doing to address threats from Russia and hold Moscow accountable. 

Trump denied on Sunday that he had been briefed on the Russian bounty operation, which multiple news outlets, including the Associated Press, have confirmed since the Times published its story on Friday. Trump has tried to cast doubt on the stories.

“Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP,” the president tweeted on Sunday night, referring to Vice President Mike Pence. “Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News … wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!”

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin denied the report.

“These claims are nothing but lies,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, according to Tass, a Russian news agency. Peskov echoed Trump’s Twitter post, saying the New York Times is known for publishing “elaborate hoaxes.” 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., wears a face mask as she arrives to speak at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 26, 2020.

When asked if the intelligence was included in the president’s written daily briefing, McEnany responded: “He was not personally briefed on the matter.”  

She said Trump was not told about the intelligence findings because some intelligence officials questioned the assessment. 

“There was not a consensus among the intelligence community, and in fact, there were dissenting opinions within the intelligence community,” she said. “And it would not be elevated to the president until it was verified.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, questioned that explanation. Presidents are frequently briefed on intelligence that is not rock solid – with analysts explaining how much confidence they have in the information – so “the president can evaluate the significance of it but also asked for more information,” Schiff said in an interview with CNN on Monday. 

This report in particular should have been flagged for Trump because of the importance of U.S.-Russian relations and the potential threat to American military personnel, he said. “If it goes to the protection of our troops, that’s something that needs to be briefed to the commander-in-chief,” Schiff told CNN. 

An aide to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he would be bringing a handful of Democrats to the White House on Tuesday morning for a briefing. But Hoyer is continuing to press the White House for a full congressional briefing, said his aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the situation.

Democrats were not alone in raising questions about how the White House handled the Russian bounty reports.

Republican Sen. Todd Young, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was “alarmed” that Trump, Pence and top lawmakers in Congress were not briefed on the intelligence information. Young suggested intelligence officials should be held “accountable for their gross negligence” for failing to alert the president, and he called for congressional hearings to probe the Russia allegations.

“We must work to ascertain the reliability of media reports and, where necessary, advance accountability within our own government and facilitate a punishing response to the seemingly immoral, illegal, and unconscionable actions of the dictator who lords over the Russian people,” Young, of Indiana, said in a statement Monday.

Rep. Liz Cheney, a member of the House Republican leadership, said in a tweet Sunday that if the report is accurate, “the White House must explain” why the president and vice president were not briefed on the matter and “what has been done in response to protect our forces hold Putin accountable?”

In its story on Friday, the Times reported that Russian military intelligence officials offered Taliban-connected militants bounties for killing American and coalition troops in Afghanistan. The Times story also reported that top White House officials were briefed on the matter in late March and Trump was also informed.

It’s not clear if the Russian operation resulted in the deaths of American troops. The Associated Press reported that intelligence officials are investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three U.S. Marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they traveled back to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan.

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.

Trump has pushed to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan amid a peace agreement with the Taliban. 

Contributing: Maureen Groppe, the Associated Press

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