Facing criticism, White House to brief Democrats on reports Russia paid Taliban to kill U.S. troops

by Reuters
Tuesday, 30 June 2020 03:43 GMT

(Adds Pentagon statement)

By Mark Hosenball and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON, June 29 (Reuters) - The White House sought to play down reports it knew Russia had paid the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. troops, promising to brief Democrats on Tuesday after being accused of only sharing information with President Donald Trump's fellow Republicans.

Trump administration officials said there was no consensus on the underlying intelligence among U.S. agencies and Trump had not been made aware of it.

But two Republican lawmakers said they remain concerned after hearing details from the White House at a meeting on Monday.

"We believe it is important to vigorously pursue any information related to Russia or any other country targeting our forces," Representatives Mac Thornberry and Liz Cheney, who attended the meeting, said in a statement.

The New York Times and Washington Post broke the story, with the Post reporting on Sunday that several American soldiers were believed to have died as a result of the program, which the Kremlin has denied.

Intelligence officials are still investigating the matter, said John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence.

"Unfortunately, unauthorized disclosures now jeopardize our ability to ever find out the full story," he said in a statement.

That didn't appear to satisfy House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said after speaking with Ratcliffe and CIA Director Gina Haspel that "many serious questions remain."

In a statement, the Pentagon said that it was continuing to evaluate intelligence.

"To date, (the Department of Defense) has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports," Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.

Several Democrats in the House of Representatives will hear details from the White House at 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) on Tuesday, an aide said.

The newspaper reports, suggesting Trump may have ignored a threat to U.S. troops as he seeks to improve relations with Russia, could damage Trump as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3. The United States is trying to extricate itself from Afghanistan after nearly two decades of war.

Citing unidentified sources, the New York Times reported on Friday that Trump had been notified of the intelligence and the National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany denied Trump was briefed and said there was "no consensus within the intelligence community."

Trump said on Sunday that U.S. intelligence officials told him they had not informed him of the purported program because the information was not credible.

Four U.S. government sources confirmed to Reuters the existence of classified U.S. intelligence reports suggesting that a Russian military intelligence unit had offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.

The sources indicated U.S. government agencies and experts on balance believed the intelligence reporting to be credible.

The Kremlin on Monday dismissed the reports as "lies."

The Republican lawmakers were briefed on Monday by Ratcliffe, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and national security adviser Robert O'Brien.

The Post said the intelligence on the bounty scheme stemmed from U.S. military interrogations of captured militants and was passed up from U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan.

The Times reported U.S. intelligence officials believe at least one American military death stemmed from the bounties, citing two officials briefed on the matter.

Reuters could not immediately confirm these reports.

The United States has in recent years accused Russia of possibly providing support, including weapons, to elements of the Taliban. But U.S. military officials have never publicly accused Moscow of putting bounties on the heads of U.S. or allied soldiers. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Tim Ahmann, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert and Phil Stewart in Washington and by Anastasia Teterevleva in Moscow; Writing by Andy Sullivan and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Howard Goller and Sonya Hepinstall)

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