Members of Congress from both parties demanded answers Monday on what the White House knew about allegations that Russia schemed to pay the Taliban or other militants to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"We need answers," Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, a retired Navy SEAL lieutenant commander who lost an eye in Afghanistan, said in retweeting a post by Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, on the alleged bounties.
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Cheney posted that "if reporting about Russian bounties on US forces is true," then the White House needed to explain "who did know and when."
The New York Times first reported June 26 that Russian GRU military intelligence had a program to offer bounties to militants to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. A following Times report Sunday said initial intelligence on the Russian bounty program came from U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan.
The Defense Department has been silent on the topic, referring questions to the White House.
Whether any U.S. troops were killed as a result, or any bounties were paid out, remains unclear, but the U.S. intelligence -- denied by the Russian embassy in Washington as "ridiculous" -- allegedly reached the White House in March.
In a series of Tweets Saturday and Sunday, President Donald Trump said that neither he nor Vice President Mike Pence were briefed on the intelligence, and again called the New York Times "fake news."
"Nobody briefed or told me, @VP Pence, or Chief of Staff @MarkMeadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an "anonymous source" by the Fake News @nytimes. Everybody is denying it & there have not been many attacks on us," Trump said.
At a White House briefing Monday, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany appeared to confirm that U.S. intelligence on a Russian bounty program existed, but said it was unverified and, therefore, was not briefed to Trump or Pence.
She said that neither CIA Director Gina Haspel, National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien nor White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows had briefed Trump and Pence "on alleged Russian bounty intelligence."
McEnany also said the intelligence had not been verified and there was dissent in the intelligence community on its credibility.
The White House statements only seemed to fuel more demands for answers from both sides of the aisle in Congress.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close Trump ally, said it was "imperative Congress get to the bottom of" the bounty allegations.
"I expect the Trump administration to take such allegations seriously and inform Congress immediately as to the reliability of these news reports," Graham said.
For House and Senate Democrats, Trump's statement that he was not informed about the alleged Russian bounty program was more evidence of failure to carry out the duties of the office.
"Trump has failed as commander-in-chief," Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colorado, a former Army Ranger who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said on Twitter. "He remains a danger to our troops, national security, and nation."
"Once again it appears that President Trump has failed to stand up to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a former Army Ranger and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Sunday.
"The American people deserve answers," Reed said. "What did President Trump and his cabinet know about this Russian-backed operation, when did they know it, and what, if anything, has been done in response? And if the President wasn't briefed in person or in writing, why not?"
In a letter Monday to Haspel and John Ratcliffe, director of National Intelligence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, requested an immediate briefing for all members of Congress on the alleged bounty program.
"Congress needs to know what the intelligence community knows about this significant threat to American troops and allies and what options are available to hold Russia accountable," Pelosi said.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, demanded that the Committee hold hearings on what she called "Bounty Gate."
Duckworth, a former Army lieutenant colonel who lost both legs in Iraq, charged in a June 27 statement that "Russia is secretly paying militants to kill U.S. troops. Trump has known for months but apparently done nothing to stop them."
The White House arranged a briefing for several Republican lawmakers following McEnany's news conference, but two later emerged to state they needed more information and assurances that the administration was devoting full attention to the issue.
After the briefing, "we remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted U.S. forces," Cheney and Rep. Mac Thornberry, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a joint statement.
"It has been clear for some time that Russia does not wish us well in Afghanistan," they said, and "We believe it is important to vigorously pursue any information related to Russia or any other country targeting our forces."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.