Congress pulls punches on Russian bounties firestorm

Congress appears poised to do little, if anything, to pass legislation responding to intelligence indicating Russia had offered bounties for the killing of U.S. troops, despite the initial firestorm that erupted on Capitol Hill.

Democrats are continuing to press Trump administration officials for answers since news first broke that the U.S. intelligence community concluded months ago that a unit in Russia’s military intelligence agency offered payments to Taliban-linked militants to incentivize the killing of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

A few bills have been filed in recent weeks to address the issue. In the Senate, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), proposed adding sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin to the annual defense policy bill.

But his amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was not one of the few that have been teed up for a vote when senators return from recess later this month, and it faces a struggle to get a vote in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said that it’s “no secret the Russians are up to no good” but did not directly answer when asked if he would endorse new sanctions.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) similarly sidestepped questions about whether Congress should take new action against Russia, instead decrying leaks to the media. Pressed further, Cornyn said lawmakers should focus on protecting U.S. forces.

“We know that countries like Russia and Iran, in particular, are using proxies to attack Americans wherever they can find them,” Cornyn said. “So none of this should be a surprise to anybody who’s been paying attention. But I think we will continue to try to figure ways to protect our forces against any kind of threats, whether its Russian bounties or just people who want to kill Americans. That’s where I think we need to focus on, is maintaining that force protection.”

In the House, Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) and Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.), introduced a bill that would require the director of national intelligence to quickly brief lawmakers on intelligence that a foreign government is deliberately seeking to kill or severely injure U.S. service members.

Separately, at least one amendment to the House’s version of the NDAA has been filed to address the issue. The amendment, from Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), would require Defense Secretary Mark Esper to notify Congress within a week of “becoming aware of any incident” in which a foreign country offers financial compensation to others “in exchange for, or in connection with, any actual or contemplated attack against Department of Defense personnel.”

But it’s unclear if it will get a vote, as hundreds of amendments are typically filed, with only a fraction making it to floor. And anything that gets added to the House bill must be reconciled with the Senate before heading to President Trump’s desk.

The Trump administration has been briefing select groups of lawmakers since late last month after news first broke of the intelligence assessments. Esper and other Defense officials have also said they have yet to find a “causative” link between bounties and U.S. troop deaths.

The briefings largely quelled initial outrage from Republicans, who mostly emerged from their sessions highlighting that disputes remain between intelligence agencies about their confidence level in the intelligence on the bounties.

Republicans have also echoed the administration in attacking leaks to the media and framed the revelations as part of Russia’s previously known pattern of meddling in Afghanistan.

The Republican stance comes despite the frustration of Democrats, who are demanding more answers and fuller briefings for all lawmakers. In a letter to Trump on Friday, Senate Democrats including Minority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) asked the president to hand over written intelligence known as the President’s Daily Brief, which reportedly included the bounty allegations, as well as to direct his administration officials to make themselves available to testify.

Trump has denied he was briefed, but the White House has sidestepped questions about whether the information was included in the President’s Daily Brief. And in a letter to Esper, Duckworth said a Senate Armed Services Committee briefing July 1 was conducted by two witnesses who were “unprepared to respond to questions.”

“It is unacceptable that to date, the Trump administration appears to be ignoring a matter of great importance to Gold Star Family members whose loved ones were killed while serving in Afghanistan: were any U.S. troop casualties in Afghanistan connected with the alleged GRU bounty payments to Taliban-linked militants?” Duckworth wrote, referring to the Russian military intelligence agency. “Gold Star Families deserve an answer to this question.”

The growing divide between Republicans and Democrats on the issue was on display in a pair of public hearings this past week.

In a House Armed Services Committee hearing that was originally called to discuss the Pentagon’s response to protests against racial injustice, several Republicans asked the Defense Department’s top leaders about the bounty program. Earlier in the day, the committee had a classified briefing on the issue.

In a carefully and narrowly worded exchange, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) asked Esper whether he had ever been briefed on intelligence that included the word “bounties,” to which Esper replied that he hadn’t.

But under later questioning from Democrats, Esper acknowledged he had been briefed on intelligence about “payments” as early as February.

At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing at the same time, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) pressed a former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan on his thoughts on the dangers of leaks to national security. Gen. John Nicholson called leaks “not helpful” but quickly added that public discussion of the bounties at a hearing is a helpful “form of pushback on Russian behavior.”

Some Republicans have continued to express concerns about the alleged bounty program, which Russia has denied exists. At the same Foreign Affairs hearing, the panel’s top Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), said a bounty program would represent an “unacceptable escalation” of Russian malign activity in Afghanistan.

McCaul also said Trump shouldn’t invite Russia to rejoin the Group of Seven, which the president has repeatedly floated. He also pointed to sanctions Congress previously authorized the administration could levy, rather than new legislation.

Meanwhile, current and former military officers called on the administration to do more to push back on Russia.

“We need to condemn this action from the highest levels of the United States government and NATO so the Russians understand it’s unacceptable,” said Nicholson, who commanded U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan from 2016 to 2018.

He also suggested suspending Trump’s planned troop drawdown in Germany, which he said Russia would view as weakness “if carried out despite these bounties.” Further, because the Taliban was also involved in the transaction, the United States shouldn’t continue drawing down in Afghanistan until the insurgents fulfill the commitments in the deal they signed with the United States, Nicholson added.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, meanwhile, pledged the military “will take action” if it verifies Russia offered the Taliban bounties for U.S. troop deaths but said no tactical battlefield action should be taken as of now.

Instead, Milley suggested the administration respond strategically, such as with diplomatic pressure or economic sanctions.

“Are we doing as much as we could or should? Perhaps not,” Milley said. “If in fact there’s bounties, I am an outraged general, just like every one of us in uniform is. If in fact there’s bounties directed by the government of Russia or any of their institutions to kill American soldiers, that’s a big deal. That’s a real big deal.”

Jordain Carney contributed to this report, which was updated at 12:16 p.m.

Tags Bob Menendez Charles Schumer Donald Trump Joe Cunningham John Cornyn Lee Zeldin Mark Esper Mark Milley Michael McCaul Mike Turner Mitch McConnell Stephanie Murphy Tammy Duckworth Vladimir Putin Yvette Clarke
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