WASHINGTON (CN) — House lawmakers on Thursday turned up the heat on the White House to stand firm and rebuke Russia by publicly addressing intelligence reports that the Kremlin placed bounties on the heads of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan.
The New York Times was the first to publish the startling allegations last month in a report citing anonymous intelligence officials who said the bounty scheme was included in an intelligence brief provided to President Donald Trump in February.
Trump denies being briefed on the matter and the White House has circled the wagons, with Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany offering full throated denials that the information ever found its way into the president’s daily briefings.
Widespread reports citing various anonymous intelligence officials say Trump did in fact learn of the plot in February. And NBC News, just hours before a House panel met to discuss the allegations with former defense and intelligence officials, reported that Russia’s alleged plan to pay the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers was given “moderate confidence” by CIA insiders.
That confidence ranking would mean that while the information may have needed further verification, the threat of U.S. troops being targeted was at least plausible.
“If analysts believed with any level of confidence that the Russians were providing bounties, that judgment would be provided in the presidential daily briefing,” Michael Morrell, former acting and deputy CIA director under President George W. Bush, testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday.
Morrell said he briefed Bush daily and explained the process in detail: Intelligence is provided each morning to the president and questions that need answers right away are addressed before priorities are sorted.
Reports that rewards are being offered for the targeted killing of American troops by a historically aggressive world power would almost certainly be among the top priorities, he said.
Even if there was a dispute or disagreement by intelligence agencies involved in compiling the information, Morrell said multiple opportunities for “extraordinarily rigorous” review would be had before the briefing.
“And if the bounty scheme was in the presidential daily briefing, it means at least one agency, one important agency, believed the information to be true at some level of confidence,” he said.
The suggestion that the presidential briefer failed to bring the findings to Trump’s attention because it did not “rise to the occasion,” as the president recently suggested, would also mean the chain of command broke down elsewhere, according to Morrell.
If the briefer knows, so too does the director of national intelligence or the director of the CIA. Typically, they, the vice president or the White House chief of staff are present during these intelligence briefings. Morrell emphasized no less than twice Thursday that if information was not in the book, an oral warning could have been issued.
“Anyone is capable of saying, ‘Mr. President, in addition to what is in your book, you need to hear this or that,’” Morrell said.
Representative Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat serving as the committee’s vice chair, doubted the administration’s claims. The committee invited Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to testify but he refused, Castro noted.
The State Department did not immediately return a request for comment.
The president has yet to slap more sanctions on Russia or publicly denounce the alleged bounties. Trump has called it “a hoax” and suggested Russia be readmitted to the Group of 7 even though President Vladimir Putin is a pariah among member countries for his annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“It’s almost as if the president is trying to make Russia great again,” Castro remarked.
Republicans on the committee, like ranking member Michael McCaul of Texas, expressed skepticism, albeit cautiously, as to the veracity of the widespread reports of the bounties. But McCaul agreed with Castro that Putin can’t be trusted.
“If true, it would be an unacceptable escalation and if true, the administration must take swift action to hold the Putin regime accountable and that includes not inviting Russia to rejoin the G7,” McCaul said.
Other panelists like retired General John Nicholson, the onetime Army commander of the U.S. Forces’ Afghanistan and NATO Resolute Support Mission, agreed.
Russia’s long history of “adversarial behavior” and its history of arming the Taliban should keep the Kremlin under a healthy amount of suspicion, he said.
Nicholson too said that even if the intelligence on the bounties was “raw” and unverified, “vigorous dialogue” would occur, “perceptions compared” and “blanks filled in” across all levels of the intelligence community and among commanders actively in the field.
“If there is a threat, you would see commanders take immediate steps to protect servicemembers,” he said while pointing a single finger skyward, indicating information would go right to the top.
Celeste Wallander, former special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director on Russia and Eurasia for the National Security Council, also called on Trump to rebuke Russia for the allegations and address it head on.
Existing sanctions on Russia are not enough, Wallander said. Tougher sanctions, including security-based sanctions and ways to stop the sale of any weapons that support Russia’s defense capabilities abroad, are vital.
At the very least, she said, a coherent “messaging strategy” should be initiated by the White House to preserve integrity and troop safety.
Ian Brzezinski, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy, called for a significantly more aggressive U.S. posture toward Russia and pointed out that whether lawmakers or the public believe the veracity of the alleged reports, everyone should consider the context of the moment that brought the former officials together Thursday.
“The fact that we are even considering that this report is plausible is a sign that we have to recalibrate our position toward Russia,” he said.