House Democrats on Tuesday emerged from a White House briefing on Tuesday disappointed over what they said was a lack of “new substantive information” about intelligence reports that Russian intelligence agents may have offered Afghanistan’s Taliban a “bounty” to kill American and allied troops.
A group of top congressional Democrats — including impeachment team leader Rep. Adam B. Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee — attended a White House briefing by Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien on Tuesday morning. Leading Republicans received their briefing the day prior.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, who attended the meeting, told reporters later that there was evidence presented during the briefing that “the Russian government was paying bounties to Afghans to attack coalition partners, not just Americans.”
The Washington state Democrat said that while briefers did not dispute that there is some evidence supporting the reported bounties, they also maintained that intelligence exists disputing the matter.
A ferocious partisan debate, sparked by a New York Times story late last week, has broken out over the quality of the intelligence and whether and when President Trump had been briefed on the findings.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden also weighed in on the reports Tuesday and said he may “very well” request a classified briefing from the Trump administration.
Mr. Biden said the episode made Mr. Trump look bad, whether the president was briefed and failed to act against Russia or whether Mr. Trump was left in the dark by his own staff about intelligence affecting the lives of U.S. troops in the field.
“The idea that he didn’t know, or wasn’t being briefed, that’s a dereliction of duty,” Mr. Biden said. “And if he was briefed, and didn’t do anything, that’s a dereliction of duty.”
Russian officials have angrily denied the reports they paid bounties to the Taliban, allegedly as part of a campaign to tie down American forces fighting there since 2001.
The Russian Embassy in Washington called the reports “fake news” and “blatant lies” on Twitter.
“It’s clear that there are forces in the United States that don’t want to leave Afghanistan, who want to justify their own failure,” the embassy statement said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
The Defense Department has also been informed of the allegations, Mr. Smith said, and said the Pentagon has taken “appropriate action” to alert U.S. forces but has not found the reports to be credible.
“The clear message that we got at the White House meeting this morning was that there is conflicting intelligence, and there are conflicting opinions within the intel community and within White House senior staff about how accurate the reporting that was in The New York Times about Russian bounties,” he continued.
New media reports Tuesday said that the matter was included in at least one of the president’s daily briefings in early spring. The New York Times, citing two unnamed administration sources, said the reports of the Taliban bounties were included in a written briefings report for Mr. Trump in February, although it is not certain the president read it.
But White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted that Mr. Trump was “never briefed on this, this intelligence still has not been verified, and there is no consensus among the intelligence community.”
She told reporters that Mr. Trump has since been briefed on “what is unfortunately in the public domain.”
Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, tweeted that it was clear to him that Mr. Trump “didn’t know about the report, and it’s clear our intelligence agencies aren’t in complete agreement on this.”
Mr. Ratcliffe, who was confirmed to his new role at the end of May, said he intended to check the veracity of the reports and also how sensitive intelligence made its way into the press.
The “selective leaking of any classified information disrupts the vital interagency work to collect, assess, and mitigate threats and places our forces at risk,” he said, adding that the possible leak is “simply put, a crime.”
He explained his agency is still investigating the reports and promised to brief Mr. Trump and congressional leaders “at the appropriate time.”
“This is the analytic process working the way it should,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “Unfortunately, unauthorized disclosures now jeopardize our ability to ever find out the full story with respect to these allegations.”
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