Eight Republican members of US congress have attended a White House briefing about allegations that Russia secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American troops in Afghanistan — intelligence the White House insisted the president himself has not been fully briefed on.
Members of both US parties called for additional information and consequences for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, with eight Democrats due to be briefed on the matter on Tuesday morning.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted US president Donald Trump had not been briefed on the findings because they have not been verified.
The White House appears to be setting an unusually high bar for bringing the information to Mr Trump, since it is rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers.
Ms McEnany declined to say why a different standard of confidence in the intelligence applied to briefing legislators compared to bringing the information to the president.
Republicans who were in the briefing on Monday expressed alarm about Russia’s activities in Afghanistan.
Michael McCaul, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and fellow representative Adam Kinzinger were in the briefing led by US director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
Mr McCaul and Mr Kinzinger said in a statement that legislators were told “there is an ongoing review to determine the accuracy of these reports”.
They said: “If the intelligence review process verifies the reports, we strongly encourage the administration to take swift and serious action to hold the Putin regime accountable.”
Representatives Liz Cheney and Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the US house armed services committee, said: “After today’s briefing with senior White House officials, we remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted US forces.”
Senators reviewed classified documents related to the allegations on Monday evening.
On CNN, US house speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed the timing of the Democratic briefing but said “it’s no substitute for what they owe the congress of the United States”.
She said that “this is as serious as it gets”.
Ms Pelosi speculated that Mr Trump was not briefed “because they know it makes him very unhappy, and all roads for him, as you know, lead to Putin. And would he tell Putin what they knew?”
The intelligence assessments came amid Mr Trump’s push to withdraw the US from Afghanistan.
They suggested Russia was making overtures to militants as the US 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.
Republican senator John Cornyn told reporters: “I don’t think it should be a surprise to anybody that the Taliban’s been trying to kill Americans and that the Russians have been encouraging that, if not providing means to make that happen.”
He added: “Intelligence committees have been briefed on that for months. So has Nancy Pelosi, so has (Democratic Senate leader) Chuck Schumer. So, this is … more leaks and partisanship.”
While Russian meddling in Afghanistan is not 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 organisation in 2012.
The intelligence community has been investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three US marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armoured vehicles as they travelled back to Bagram Airfield, the largest US military installation in Afghanistan.
Three other US 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.
Intelligence officials told the AP that the White House first became aware of alleged Russian bounties in early 2019 – a year earlier than had been previously reported.
The assessments were included in one of Mr Trump’s written daily briefings at the time, and then-national security adviser John Bolton told colleagues he had briefed Mr Trump on the matter.
Mr Trump’s Democratic general election rival, former vice president Joe Biden, used an online fundraiser on Monday to hammer the president for a “betrayal” of American troops in favour of “an embarrassing campaign of deferring and debasing himself before Putin”.
“I’m disgusted,” Mr Biden told donors, as he recalled his late son Beau’s military service.
Families of service members, Mr Biden said, “should never, ever have to worry they’ll face a threat like this: the commander in chief turning a blind eye”.
Asked about the reports on the alleged bounties, Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “These claims are lies.”