Top US spies brief Congress on Russia-Taliban intelligence

Congress eyes new sanctions as Trump downplays reports Russia offered Taliban affiliates cash to kill Americans.

CIA Director Gina Haspel briefs Congress on Russia-Taliban intel
CIA Director Gina Haspel arrives on Capitol Hill to brief United States congressional leaders on reports that Russia paid the Taliban bounties to kill US service members in Afghanistan [Leah Millis/Reuters]

CIA Director Gina Haspel and National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone met with congressional leaders at the United States Capitol on Thursday to share US intelligence suggesting Russia offered the Taliban bounties to kill US troops in Afghanistan.

Amid rising calls for new sanctions on Russia, US intelligence officials are under pressure from members of both parties in Congress to provide explanations.

US media outlets have reported that intelligence agencies concluded the Russian military offered bounties to Taliban affiliates in Afghanistan to kill American troops and coalition forces. President Donald Trump has played down the reports and called the allegations a hoax. 

Members of Congress who were briefed behind closed doors on Thursday included top Republican and Democrat leaders from the House of Representatives and the Senate as well as chairs of the intelligence committees. The US’s top spy, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, also attended.

“I’m not going to say anything about the briefing, but I believe that the president is not close to tough enough on [Russian President] Vladimir Putin,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told reporters as he left the briefing.

Going into the meeting, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – who has been harshly critical of Trump, calling him unfit for office – said she hoped to learn “the truth” about the Russian bounties.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reacts to Russia-Taliban intel
United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the US Congress, says the US should impose new financial sanctions on Russia following a classified intelligence briefing on reports that Moscow paid the Taliban bounties to kill US military in Afghanistan, on July 2, 2020 [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

After the closed briefing, Schumer and Pelosi issued a joint statement accusing Trump of being “soft” on Putin. 

The intelligence “was of a consequential level” and the president and Congress should have been briefed, Pelosi said at a news conference.

“The White House put on a con that if you don’t have 100 percent consensus on intelligence that it shouldn’t rise to a certain level,” Pelosi said.

Warmer relations

US Democrats demand more information on Russian bounty allegations

Pelosi said Congress should now impose financial sanctions on Russia’s intelligence and military sectors – penalties that were withheld at Trump’s request, she said, in a US sanctions law passed overwhelmingly by Congress in 2017.

Trump, a Republican, has worked to cultivate warmer relations with Moscow. Recently, the US president sought to invite Russia back into the Group of Seven meeting of industrialised nations, but was blocked by Germany and other allies. Russia was expelled by the group after annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine.

Four US and European government sources, who are familiar with intelligence reporting and spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Reuters news agency that in recent weeks the US had acquired fresh reporting backing up the allegations that Russia had encouraged Taliban-affiliated militants to kill US and allied soldiers in Afghanistan.

US intelligence agencies are confident Russia encouraged the Taliban to kill US troops, but there is a disagreement between the CIA and the National Security Agency over whether Moscow had actually paid bounties, Reuters reported.

CIA Director Haspel did not respond to reporters’ questions as she left the meeting, which took place in a secure hearing room in the basement of the US Capitol. 

In addition to the leadership briefing on Thursday, intelligence officials were scheduled to brief the 22-member House Intelligence Committee.

In a pair of separate meetings with Republicans and Democrats at the White House on June 30, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told members of Congress the president had not been verbally briefed because there was not a consensus among US spy agencies.

Trump administration officials have defended the president and the administration’s handling of the intelligence, which they described as serious.

US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said on July 1 that the CIA and Pentagon had pursued the intelligence and briefed coalition allies. The White House was preparing options for a potential US response to present to Trump, O’Brien said.

April 2019 car bomb killed US troops
Three US marines were killed near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in a car bomb attack that may have been prompted by Russian offers of a bounty for dead Americans, on April 9, 2019 [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

“These are important allegations that, if they’re verified, I can guarantee you, the president will take strong action. We’ve been working for several months on options,” O’Brien told reporters outside the White House.

The New York Times, which broke the story last week, reported Trump received a written briefing in February.

At a news conference on July 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said steps were taken to ensure the safety of US troops. “We took this seriously. We handled it appropriately,” he said.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denied reports that Russia supplied arms or cash to Taliban militants.

“It is well known that Russia only supplied arms to the legitimate government of Afghanistan,” Zakharova said during a news briefing on Thursday.

Zakharova also said US forces used helicopters to provide air support for the ISIL (ISIS) group during skirmishes with the Taliban, according to Reuters.

The US has in recent years accused Russia of providing support, including weapons, to elements of the Taliban. 

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies