Congress Demands Answers After Reports of Russian Bounties on American Troops

Abbie Bennett
June 29, 2020 - 12:23 pm

Key Capitol Hill lawmakers are demanding answers after reports that Russian officials offered bounties on American troops in Afghanistan.

House and Senate leaders, want an emergency briefing and argue the president should have known or been told about the potential threat. 

Calls for the briefing are bipartisan -- both Democrats and Republicans are demanding answers as early as Monday on how credible the threat may be and what danger U.S. troops may be in. 

Members of the House Armed Services Committee called for a briefing over the weekend after the news reports.

“When you are dealing with the lives of our service members, especially these allegations, then it is incredibly serious,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, ranking member of the committee, said. “We in Congress need to see the information and judge for ourselves. It will not be acceptable to have a delay.”

By Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made her own request, asking that all House lawmakers get answers.

“The administration’s disturbing silence and inaction endanger the lives of our troops and our coalition partners,” she wrote in a letter to the White House. “The president’s refusal to stand up to the Russians also jeopardizes lives in the region, as the Afghan government and the United States are engaged in critical peace negotiations with the Taliban ... Congress needs to know ... about this significant threat to American troops and our allies and what options are available to hold Russia accountable."

Last week, The New York Times reported that American intelligence showed evidence that Russian officials allegedly offered and paid Taliban-connected militants bounties in exchange for targeting U.S. troops in Afghanistan. There was also evidence, the Times reported, that the evidence of such payments was provided to senior officials in President Donald Trump's administration as early as March and that the president was made aware of the alleged threat.

U.S. intelligence officials and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan "alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops," the Times reported, and "believed at least one U.S. troop death was the result of the bounties." 

On Sunday, the president denied that he knew of the threat against U.S. troops on Twitter. He said intelligence officials "reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or (Vice President Mike Pence). Possibly another fabricated Russia hoax." 

Lawmakers were not satisfied with the president's explanation and dismissal of the issue as a potential "hoax." 

"Those who serve our country in a combat zone voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way. We must do everything we can to support them,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Monday. "We must find out exactly what was known, and when it was known to hold the appropriate administration officials and the Russian government accountable.”

Smith said Trump's explanation amounted to an "excuse" and said it "only gives rise to more questions." 

"Why didn’t the president receive a briefing on such a highly sensitive subject? Was this information included in the presidential daily briefing? If not, why not? Was this information shared with our military leaders?" Smith said. 

Members of Congress said they wanted to see what evidence intelligence and military officials have. 

"Anything with any hint of credibility that would endanger our service members, or put a bounty on their lives, should have been briefed immediately to commander in chief," Thornberry told reporters Monday. "It may be appropriate for people who briefed the president to be removed if they didn't brief the president on that." 

Though Russia may have "tried to cause mischief" for U.S. troops in Afghanistan previously, Thornberry said current allegations are "a different level." 

Senate Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, called for U.S. intelligence officials to "immediately" brief all 100 senators.

"We need to know whether or not President Trump was told this information, and if so, when," he said in a statement. 

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, accused the president of failing to "stand up" to Vladimir Putin and "ignoring Russian aggression." 

"The president has a range of responses available to him, including diplomacy and sanctions," Reed said in a statement Sunday. "This administration’s failure to take any meaningful action is disgraceful and makes our troops less safe. The U.S. must hold accountable anyone who targets our troops."

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a combat veteran and Senate Armed Services Committee member, accused the president of "failing to authorize any action in response to (Russia) covertly providing bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing U.S. service members in Afghanistan. Members of the U.S. Armed Forces, military families and the American people deserve answers and accountability for President Trump’s outrageous failure of leadership and apparent betrayal of our troops.”

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