Pentagon leaders set to testify before House panel July 9
Top Pentagon officials will testify publicly next week on the military’s response to protests over racial injustices, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley are scheduled to testify before the committee July 9, Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters in response to a question from The Hill.
The panel is also working on scheduling a briefing with Pentagon officials next week about force protection measures that have been taken in response to intelligence showing that Russia offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. troops, Smith added.
The Esper and Milley hearing is on the books after a bitter back-and-forth between committee Democrats and Pentagon officials on scheduling the hearing.
Smith called for Esper and Milley to testify before his panel after President Trump threatened to deploy active-duty troops to quell protests across the country and Park Police forcibly cleared protesters in Lafayette Square outside the White House so Trump could walk to a photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Days later, Smith and the committee’s Democrats said Esper and Milley refused to testify as requested, calling their decision not to appear before the committee “unacceptable.”
The Pentagon shot back that Esper and Milley “have not ‘refused’ to testify” and said the department’s legislative affairs team was in discussion with the committee on scheduling.
Smith on Tuesday said the Pentagon has been “reasonably cooperative” in providing witnesses to the committee amid logistical issues during the coronavirus pandemic, despite the fact that Esper and Milley are not testifying “as rapidly as we would have liked.”
Meanwhile, a new firestorm has erupted over the intelligence on Russian bounties against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The New York Times first reported Friday, followed by several other news outlets, that the intelligence community concluded months ago that a unit within the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, secretly offered payments to Taliban-linked militants for attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan last year.
The White House and Trump have denied he was briefed on the matter, something reports contradict. Reports Monday night added that the information was included in written material known as the President’s Daily Brief.
Over the weekend, Smith and the Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas), demanded the Pentagon brief the panel on the issue as early as this week.
Smith said Tuesday that the Pentagon responded to their demand with a note saying the department is aware of the allegations and that “they have taken appropriate action in terms of informing for force protection purposes.” Still, Smith said, the department said it “did not find [the intelligence] credible.”
A Pentagon statement late Monday night said the department continues to evaluate the intelligence, but that it has not “to date” found “corroborating evidence.”
The issue is primarily within the jurisdiction of the congressional intelligence committees, Smith said, but his panel wants to ensure U.S. troops are sufficiently protected.
Smith and several other Democrats on Tuesday morning attended a White House briefing on the issue. Select Republicans were given a White House briefing Monday.
Based on what he heard at the White House, Smith said “it seems to me like [Trump] did know about it.”
“Now maybe he was aware of the allegation, looked at it and said, ‘There’s nothing to this,’” Smith said. “It’s hard for me to believe based on the way it was presented that the president knew nothing about it, as he stated.”
Smith acknowledged that there is “conflicting intelligence” and “conflicting opinions” within the intelligence community about the information but said there is evidence of Russia’s involvement.
“It is disturbing, and I do think we should figure out what’s happening and put pressure on the Russians to stop doing what the intel indicates that they may well have been doing,” Smith said, adding that “a lot more information is needed.”