By Steve Herman
The White House is on the defensive about President Donald Trump not being briefed on reports that a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban militants in Afghanistan to kill U.S. soldiers.
“It was not verified,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Monday when reporters asked why the president was not told of the information. “There were dissenting opinions within the intelligence community,” she added.
The White House did conduct a Monday afternoon briefing for eight House Republicans about the matter amid bipartisan calls by members of Congress for transparency.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe to give the full 435-member House of Representatives a briefing on the issue.
“Congress needs to know what the intelligence community knows about this significant threat to American troops and our allies and what options are available to hold Russia accountable,” Pelosi said in a statement.
The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, told reporters Monday he also is requesting a briefing from the Defense Department.
In the Senate, the minority leader, Chuck Schumer, said he wants all 100 senators briefed by the heads of the CIA and the director of national intelligence.
“We need to know whether or not President Trump was told this information, and if so, when,” Schumer said in a statement.
Trump tweeted Sunday he was not briefed.
“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 said on Twitter, referencing Vice President Mike Pence.
The New York Times was the first to report that U.S. intelligence officials had concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and covert operations in Europe aimed at destabilizing the West, had carried out the mission in Afghanistan last year and that he had been briefed about it in late March.
According to The Washington Post, U.S. forces suffered 28 deaths from 2018 to 2020. An additional number of service members also died in attacks by members of the Afghan security forces, which may have been infiltrated by the Taliban, the newspaper reported.
The intelligence originated with U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan and was verified by the CIA, the Post said.
According to a former National Security Council spokesman, Ned Price, “Only infrequently would the president be briefed on raw, uncorroborated intelligence” but according to the reports that is not the case with this information “gleaned from site exploration in Afghanistan, corroborated by detainee briefings and further corroborated by broader all-source collection and analysis.”
Price was among those who provided then-President Barack Obama with his daily intelligence briefing. Price also noted to VOA that various senior administration officials, including Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, “had staked out positions on how to respond to Russia. If this truly were raw, uncorroborated reporting, there wouldn’t have been high-level policy discussions regarding a response.”
Both Russia and the Taliban deny the reports of the bounties, with the Kremlin calling them “baseless and anonymous accusations.”
Reaction from Taliban
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, rejected the report that the insurgents have “any such relations with any intelligence agency” and called the newspaper report an attempt to defame them.
“These kinds of deals with the Russian intelligence agency are baseless — our target killings and assassinations were ongoing in years before, and we did it on our own resources,” he said. “That changed after our deal with the Americans, and their lives are secure, and we don’t attack them.”
Earlier this year, the United States and Taliban signed an “agreement for bringing peace” to Afghanistan after more than 18 years of conflict. The U.S. and NATO allies have agreed to withdraw all troops by next year if the militants uphold the deal.
A former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, Mick Mulroy, terms as disturbing the reports about Moscow paying a bounty to the Taliban, noting Russia is deemed an enemy of the United States in the U.S. national security strategy.
“We do not want a war with Russia and we do not want to start killing each other’s soldier, but there are some actions you can’t accept,” Mulroy, also a former CIA paramilitary officer, and currently an ABC News national security analyst, told VOA. “If we have solid evidence that this is being done and our forces are being killed, the gloves should be hitting the floor.”
VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.