WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., says he’s heard from many Nebraska military families who are “livid” about reports that Russia offered bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sasse told reporters this week that, in deference to classification concerns, he would not confirm any facts of the story, which were first reported by the New York Times. But if the reports are accurate, Sasse said, Congress needs to focus on two areas.
“Number one, who knew what when? Did the commander in chief know and, if not, how the hell not? What is going on in our process?” Sasse said. “And, number two, what are we gonna do to impose proportional cost in response? In a situation like this, that would mean Taliban and GRU body bags.”
That GRU acronym refers to Russia’s military intelligence service.
The U.S. intelligence chiefs conducted classified briefings Thursday for congressional leaders who have demanded more answers about intelligence assessments that Russia offered bounties for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
President Donald Trump has called news reports about the assessments a “hoax,” but hasn’t directly addressed their substance or whether the U.S. has or will respond to Russia.
Top intelligence officials, including CIA chief Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, conducted the closed-door briefing for a group of lawmakers dubbed the “gang of eight” — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the top Republicans and Democrats on the two intelligence committees. The group regularly receives classified briefings at the highest levels.
Pelosi said ahead of the meeting that she hopes Republicans in the briefing are “open to the truth,” and she called for additional sanctions on Russia.
The White House has insisted that Trump wasn’t briefed on the assessments because they hadn’t been verified, even though it’s rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of doubt before it is presented to senior government decision-makers.
Other Midlands Republicans were less pointed than Sasse, with some offering more skepticism about the accuracy of the reporting.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement that if verified, the reports would represent a serious escalation in what has been called a new Cold War.
“It demands a strong response, and I don’t mean a diplomatic response,” Grassley said.
Grassley called for increasing deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank and pointing out to the Russian people that they don’t have to accept a rigged referendum on Putin’s continued power.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, was at the White House for a briefing on the issue Tuesday morning.
Afterward, she spoke at a GOP leadership press conference where she said that Putin is not to be trusted and that it’s important American troops on the ground are protected.
But she also sought to cast doubt on the reports, based on what she heard at the White House.
“The evidence that I have seen and have heard shows no corroboration between what was posted in the New York Times article,” Ernst said.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., for example, noted that as a retired Air Force brigadier general, he had personal experience with human intelligence gathering. That includes his time stationed in the Philippines.
“Most human intelligence is very sketchy at best,” Bacon said. “I would get hundreds of reports in the Philippines every day and maybe one or two would be accurate.”
Bacon said that while he believes the Russians are not above offering bounties for dead American soldiers, it’s possible the intelligence in question could not be confirmed and, as a result, was not brought to President Donald Trump’s attention by his staff. Bacon also criticized the anonymous source who passed the information to the New York Times.
By doing so, that person undermined Americans’ confidence in the president or the intelligence community, Bacon said.
The Omaha-area congressman also defended the president’s approach to Russia by saying that Trump could be more blunt in his criticisms of Russian leader Vladimir Putin but that the administration’s policies have been tough on Russia — from sending Ukraine anti-tank missiles to funding a robust nuclear deterrence strategy.
Bacon’s Democratic opponent, Kara Eastman, wrote on Twitter that it’s hard to believe Trump was kept in the dark but noted that the president hadn’t taken action since the news broke.
“With a chance to defend our troops, Trump caved,” Eastman wrote. “Even NOW he hasn’t condemned Russia’s actions.”
Eastman said if soldiers lose faith in their mission because of the president’s inaction, everyone will be less safe.
“Supporting our fighting men and women is not a political idea,” she said. “It is a sacred value shared by ALL Americans.”
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., is a member of a House subcommittee on state and foreign operations as well as founder of a congressional working group on nuclear security.
Fortenberry issued a statement that made no mention of Trump but rather said generally the United States doesn’t play games when it comes to Russia or other threats.
“It is not clear that these allegations are true; however, if verified, they are a gut punch and speak to the depraved state of humanity,” Fortenberry said.
His Democratic opponent, State Sen. Kate Bolz, issued a statement urging Fortenberry to condemn White House inaction on the bounties.
“I call on him to put country over party and join the bipartisan calls for answers,” Bolz said.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a statement that didn’t refer to Trump’s role but expressed support for a briefing by the administration.
“I believe Congress has a duty to explore whether Russia or any other nation is planning attacks on our armed forces,” Fischer said. “We must protect the brave men and women of our military.”
Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said all facts need to be gathered before jumping to conclusions.
“We know Russia is not to be trusted, especially with American lives on the line,” Smith said. “If reports are true, this is yet another egregious violation of international law by Russia.”
— Mary Clare Jalonick and Matthew Daly of the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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