A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers is due to be briefed on July 2 by senior intelligence officials following reports alleging Russia paid the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The briefing comes amid mounting calls for new sanctions against Russia and as the president and administration officials step up their defense of the administration’s response to the matter.
The intelligence officials who will speak with the lawmakers in a classified briefing on Capitol Hill include CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.
U.S. President Donald Trump on July 1 reiterated that he was not told about the reported Russian effort to get the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers because many U.S. intelligence officials doubted it was true.
"We never heard about it because intelligence never found it to be of that level," he told Fox Business Network. "The intelligence people…many of them didn't believe it happened at all."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky), who is among the lawmakers to be briefed on July 2, said he didn’t think Trump should be “subjected to every rumor.”
Democrats, however, have been upping the pressure on Trump over the report, which first appeared last week in The New York Times based on multiple unidentified sources with knowledge of the matter. They have questioned how the president could not have known about the intelligence and why he has not issued a stronger response.
Lawmakers from both parties have demanded more information about the alleged bounty scheme and whether any bounties were paid for the death of U.S. troops. Many, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California), have called for sanctions against Russia, if the allegations are true.
"We must institute sanctions against Russia and we must do it right away," she said on MSNBC on July 1.
Senator Chuck Grassley (Republican-Iowa), speaking on the Senate floor, said the matter “demands a strong response, and I don’t mean a diplomatic response,” if the reports are true.
'We Took This Seriously'
White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien told reporters that if the allegations are verified, “I can guarantee you the president will take strong action." He added that Washington may never know the truth of the matter because of leaks to the media.
O'Brien provided a few specifics, saying Trump was not verbally briefed by his CIA briefer, and he defended that decision as "the right call." The briefer, a senior career civil servant, "didn't have confidence in the intelligence," O'Brien said.
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 at a briefing. He said the administration receives intelligence about threats to Americans every day and each is addressed.
Pompeo added that Russian activity in Afghanistan is nothing new and when there is credible information suggesting Russians are putting American lives at risk, the United States responds "in a way that is serious."
Russia and the Taliban have denied the existence of any offer of bounties to kill U.S. troops.
But according to The New York Times and other media outlets unidentified U.S. and European government sources familiar with intelligence reporting say bounties were offered.
They said that in recent weeks the United States had acquired fresh information backing up the allegations that Russia had encouraged Taliban-affiliated militants to kill U.S. and allied soldiers in Afghanistan, according to the news reports.
At least two sources have said the U.S. intelligence community is confident Russia encouraged the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan but there was internal debate over whether Moscow had actually paid bounties.
Another person familiar with the matter said the CIA was sufficiently confident of the intelligence to include it in May in its daily publication, and its inclusion there undermines the administration’s claim that it was not verified, the source said.
A withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is a top agenda item for the president, who is up for reelection in November. The United States and the Taliban signed an agreement in February intended to pave the way for peace talks between the militant group and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and bring an end to the long-running conflict.