The country’s top intelligence officials on Thursday held a classified briefing with congressional leaders amid demands for more information on the reports that Russian agents offered Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan thousands of dollars in bounties for killing American troops.
Top intelligence officials, including CIA chief Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, held the briefing Thursday afternoon with members of the so-called “Gang of Eight”: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the top Republicans and Democrats on the two intelligence committees.
“Force protection is a primary purpose of intelligence. It should have the same importance to the Commander-in-Chief. Any reports of threats on our troops must be pursued relentlessly,” Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement following the meeting. “These reports are coming to light in the context of the president being soft on [Russian President] Vladimir Putin when it comes to NATO, the G-7, Crimea, Ukraine and the ongoing undermining of the integrity of our elections. “
They added: “Our Armed Forces would be better served if President Trump spent more time reading his daily briefing and less time planning military parades and defending relics of the Confederacy.”
The Capitol Hill meetings come as President Trump has been under increasing pressure to provide answers about the U.S. response to Russia or the lack of one. But the president has continued to downplay the intelligence, calling it a “hoax” and “fake news” designed to damage him and the Republican Party.
Trump also has not directly addressed the substance of the reports nor whether the U.S. has or will respond to Russia.
The White House has insisted that Trump wasn’t briefed on the assessments because they hadn’t been verified, even though it’s rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers.
“The White House has done a con, saying that because all of the agencies of intelligence have not signed off on this, it wasn’t worthy of the president’s attention,” Pelosi said on MSNBC. “You know the death of our young people in Afghanistan or any place is worthy of the president’s attention.”
News that Moscow allegedly offered bounties to Afghan militants who killed U.S. soldiers was first reported over the weekend in the New York Times.
The Washington Post further reported that the Russian bounties are “believed to have resulted in the deaths of several U.S. service members.” And The Associated Press reported that officials said an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three Marines in Afghanistan is under investigation.
Administration officials have insisted they have taken intelligence seriously. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said Wednesday that the CIA and the Pentagon pursued the leads and briefed international allies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the situation was handled “incredibly well” to ensure the safety of U.S. troops.
“We took this seriously, we handled it appropriately,” Pompeo said, without giving additional details. He said the administration receives intelligence about threats to Americans “every single day” and each is addressed.
A group of House Democrats who were briefed at the White House earlier this week accused Trump of bowing to Putin at the risk of U.S. soldiers’ lives.
Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said the panel would “leave no stone unturned” in seeking further information. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., called on the administration to provide a briefing to all senators after he reviewed some of the intelligence in a secure room in the Capitol.
“If it is concluded that Russia offered bounties to murder American soldiers, a firm American response is required in short order,” Toomey said.
Other Republicans defended the president, saying they had confidence in the administration’s response. McConnell said he didn’t think Trump should be “subjected to every rumor.”
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Wednesday pointed to an individual who she said made the decision not to brief Trump, identifying the person as a female CIA officer with more than 30 years of experience. O’Brien, the national security adviser, said the person was a “career CIA briefer.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.