US lawmakers have called for a congressional probe into claims the US failed to act on intelligence that Russian operatives offered to pay Taliban-linked militants to kill American troops in Afghanistan.
The White House denied reports that Donald Trump was briefed on the alleged Russian plot, which the New York Times said had been uncovered by US intelligence officials months ago.
It said that Mr Trump’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an inter-agency meeting in late March, but that British counterparts were told only last week.
“This is totally outrageous,” said Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Speaker of the House, adding that her party had called for a report to Congress on the allegations. “You would think that the minute the president heard of it he would want to know more instead of denying that he knew anything.”
Ms Pelosi said the president was “kissing up to [Russian president Vladimir] Putin in every way,” citing Mr Trump’s invitation to Moscow to join the G7 despite Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursions into Ukraine. “Something is wrong with this picture.”
Kayleigh McEnany, White House press secretary, said in a statement on Saturday that the CIA director, national security adviser and the chief of staff “can all confirm that neither the president nor the vice-president were briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence”.
But Ms McEnany stopped short of denying the report about the alleged Russian operation itself, which the NYT said was conducted by an arm of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit. The operation may have been aimed at destabilising peace talks held last year in a bid to undermine American interests.
“This does not speak to the merit of the alleged intelligence but to the inaccuracy of the New York Times story erroneously suggesting that President Trump was briefed on this matter,” Ms McEnany said.
Kirsten Gillibrand, the top Democrat on the Senate armed services military personnel subcommittee, was among those calling for a joint congressional investigation.
“I am deeply distressed that President Trump appears to have wilfully failed to protect service members and failed them and their families,” she said in a letter to Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate committee, citing reports that the president had failed to act on the intelligence allegedly briefed to him.
“Congress must promptly investigate to put the details of this incident in the public record, figure out the full consequences of the bounty scheme, and determine who must be held accountable and how,” she said.
While the CIA and the Pentagon were among those who declined to comment, John Ratcliffe, the new director of national intelligence — an umbrella body for America’s 17 intelligence agencies — said late on Saturday that neither Mr Trump nor Mike Pence, vice-president, were briefed on any such intelligence.
But the reassurances did not put off Lindsey Graham, a vocal Republican senator and key ally of Mr Trump who nevertheless opposes the president’s desire for a speedy drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan. The pair met to play golf together on Sunday.
“I expect the Trump Administration to take such allegations seriously and inform Congress immediately as to the reliability of these news reports,” he said in a series of tweets, adding that it was “imperative” that Congress got to the bottom of the reports.
“In many ways a non-conditions based withdrawal from Afghanistan is a greater blunder than Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq against sound military advice because Afghanistan is where 9/11 originated,” he added.
Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the Democrat-controlled House foreign affairs committee, said the reports, if true, “would only deepen” his grave concerns about Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime and its impact on global affairs.
He cited its invasion of Ukraine, propping up dictators around the world — a reference to Moscow’s support for regimes in Syria and Venezuela — and interfering in US and European elections.
“If accurate, the administration must take swift and serious action to hold the Putin regime accountable,” Mr McCaul said of the report in a statement, adding that he had already contacted the administration.