WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House said Monday that President Donald Trump wasn't briefed on U.S. intelligence assessments earlier this year that Russia secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American troops in Afghanistan because the information had not been "verified."
Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany asserted intelligence "would not be elevated to the president until it was verified." However, it is rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers.
McEnany added that a House briefing for select members of Congress was being held Monday, but she said that even then, Trump still had not been briefed on the intelligence. Eight Republican lawmakers were in the briefing, an official said, adding Democrats were invited but chose not to attend. McEnany declined to say why a different standard applied to briefing lawmakers than the president.
"There is no consensus within the intelligence community on these allegations and in effect there are dissenting opinions from some in the intelligence community with regards to the veracity of what's being reported and the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated," McEnany said.
The intelligence assessments came amid Trump's push to withdraw the U.S. from Afghanistan and suggested Russia was making overtures to militants as the U.S. and the Taliban held talks to end the long-running war. The assessment was first reported by the New York Times, then confirmed to the Associated Press by American intelligence officials and two others with knowledge of the matter.
While Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn't new, officials said Russian operatives became more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012. Russian operatives are said to have met with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, and Afghanistan; however, it's unknown if the meetings were to discuss bounties.
The officials the AP spoke to said the intelligence community has been investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three U.S. Marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they traveled back to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan.
Three other U.S. service members were wounded in the attack, along with an Afghan contractor. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter. The officials the AP spoke to also said they were looking closely at insider attacks — sometimes called "green-on-blue" incidents — from 2019 to determine if they are also linked to Russian bounties.
In early 2020, members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known to the public as SEAL Team Six, raided a Taliban outpost and recovered roughly $500,000. The recovered funds further solidified the suspicions of the American intelligence community that the Russians had offered money to Taliban militants and linked associations.
One official said the administration discussed several potential responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step.
The intelligence officials told the AP that Trump was briefed on the bounty matter earlier this year; Trump denied that, tweeting Sunday neither he nor Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed. Trump tweeted Sunday night he was just told intelligence officials didn't report the information to him because they didn't find it credible.
The intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter insisted on anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive matter.
The White House National Security Council wouldn't confirm the assessments but said the U.S. receives thousands of intelligence reports daily that are subject to strict scrutiny.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted Saturday it's "Imperative Congress get to the bottom of recent media reports that Russian GRU units in Afghanistan have offered to pay the Taliban to kill American soldiers with the goal of pushing America out of the region." GRU is a reference to the Russian military intelligence agency.
Rep. Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican in the House, called for the White House to share more information with Congress, saying, if true, lawmakers need to know "Who did know and when?" and, referring to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, "What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?"
Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden said reports Trump was aware of the Russian bounties would be a "truly shocking revelation" about the commander in chief and his failure to protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan and stand up to Russia.
Russia called the report "nonsense."
"This unsophisticated plant clearly illustrates the low intellectual abilities of the propagandists of American intelligence, who instead of inventing something more plausible have to make up this nonsense," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.