The top general in the U.S. military vowed Thursday to “get to the bottom” of intelligence on Russia offering bounties for the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan and pledged his “1000 percent commitment” to sufficiently protecting U.S. forces.
“I’ve got three tours in Afghanistan and multiple tours in a lot of other places, and I’ve buried a lot of people in Arlington National Cemetery, so I am committed to the nth degree to protect our force,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told the House Armed Service Committee.
“Units of people are and were informed and will remain informed,” he added about the intelligence on Russia. “We’re going to get to the bottom of all that, but I can assure the families that force protection of our force, not only for me but for every commander all the way down the line, that’s the No. 1 priority for every one of us.”
Milley later called the bounties a “unique, discrete piece of information that is not corroborated,” but said Pentagon officials “are taking it serious, we’re going to get to the bottom of it, we’re going to find out if in fact it’s true, and if it is true, we will take action.”
Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to update Americans on omicron; Congress back Former defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Major Russia weapons test stokes tensions MORE similarly vowed force protection, but saved his most impassioned words to rail against leaks to the media.
“We are aggressively pursuing leaks within the Defense Department,” he said. “I’ve launched an investigation that is under way to go after leaks, whether it’s of classified information or unclassified information that is sensitive and also unauthorized discussions with the media. All those things, again, hurt our nation’s security. They undermine our troops, their safety. They affect our relations with other countries. They undermine our national policy. It’s bad.”
The comments, made at a House Armed Services Committee hearing originally called to discuss the military’s response to protests over racial injustice, mark Esper and Milley’s first public remarks on the reports that a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
A firestorm erupted in Washington, D.C., after The New York Times, followed by several other news outlets, reported on the U.S. intelligence assessments that dated back months. Lawmakers, including some Republicans, demanded answers on what Trump knew and what he has done in response.
The White House and President TrumpDonald TrumpMan sentenced to nearly four years for running scam Trump, Biden PACs Meadows says Trump's blood oxygen level was dangerously low when he had COVID-19 Trump endorses David Perdue in Georgia's governor race MORE have sought to downplay the controversy, dismissing the intelligence as uncorroborated and arguing he wasn’t briefed because of that. Reports have said the intelligence was included in written material given to Trump known as the President’s Daily Brief.
On Wednesday, Milley said there is no military action on the ground that could be done at this point that hasn’t been, but suggested the administration could be doing more to respond to foreign support to the Taliban at the strategic level such as using diplomatic and economic tools.
“Are we doing as much as we could or should? Perhaps not,” Milley said. “Not only to the Russians, but to others.”
Esper, meanwhile, first told the committee he was never briefed on intelligence that specifically included the word “bounty.”
But later in the hearing, Esper acknowledged that he was briefed on intelligence about “payments” to militants.
Esper said he was first made aware of the intelligence at issue in February. Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Scott Miller, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, were aware as early as January, Esper said, adding “neither thought the reports were credible as they dug into them.”
Esper also said the intelligence was not produced by defense intelligence agencies and that “all of the defense intelligence agencies have been unable to corroborate that report.”
Esper and Milley’s comments come after McKenzie told reporters earlier this week he found the intelligence “worrisome,” but that he has not found a “causative link” between the bounties and U.S. service member deaths.
Esper on Thursday specifically said officials have not found “causality” between any payments and a suicide bombing that killed three Marines in April 2019, which reports have indicated the military was investigating as possibly spurred by the bounties.
“As of today, right now, we don’t have cause and effect linkages to a Russian bounty program causing U.S. military casualties,” Milley added. “However, we are still looking. We’re not done. We’re going to run this thing to ground.”