As members of Congress called for an investigation, President Donald Trump said Sunday he was not briefed on reports that a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban militants in Afghanistan to kill U.S. soldiers because U.S. intelligence officials did not deem them credible.
"Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP," Trump said, referencing Vice President Mike Pence.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on CIA director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe to give the full 435-member House of Representatives a briefing on the issue.
"Congress needs to know what the intelligence community knows about this significant threat to American troops and our allies and what options are available to hold Russia accountable," Pelosi said.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he expects the Trump administration to "take such allegations seriously."
"Imperative Congress get to the bottom of recent media reports that Russian GRU units in Afghanistan have offered to pay the Taliban to kill American soldiers with the goal of pushing America out of the region," Graham tweeted late Sunday.
Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand demanded a congressional investigation into the scope of the bounty program, including who was paid, how much money was involved, and identifying any Americans who were killed as a result. She also wants to know when Trump and other administration officials learned about it, as well as if any members of Congress were aware of the program.
"I believe that when we ask our service members and their families to take risks and make sacrifices for the United States, it is with the understanding that we will do anything we can to mitigate those risks and honor those sacrifices," Gillibrand said. "President Trump appears to have utterly failed to uphold his end of the bargain. Through thorough investigation, oversight, and accountability measures, we can still keep ours."
The New York Times was the first to report that U.S. intelligence officials had concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and covert operations in Europe aimed at destabilizing the West, had carried out the mission in Afghanistan last year and that he had been briefed about it in late March.
According to an article published Sunday on the Washington Post website, U.S. forces suffered 28 deaths over three years, 2018-2020. An additional number of service members also died in attacks by members of the Afghan security forces, which may have been infiltrated by the Taliban, the Post said.
The intelligence originated with U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan and was verified by the CIA, the Post said.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Sunday the New York Times inaccurately suggested Trump was briefed on the intelligence in the paper's report.
"The United States receives thousands of intelligence reports a day and they are subject to strict scrutiny," she said. "While the White House does not routinely comment on alleged intelligence or internal deliberations, 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."
Both Russia and the Taliban denied the report of the bounties, with Moscow calling them "baseless and anonymous accusations." The Russian embassy in Washington said the New York Times report had "already led to direct threats" on the lives of employees at Russian embassies in Washington and London.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, rejected the report that the insurgents have "any such relations with any intelligence agency" and called the newspaper report an attempt to defame them.
"These kinds of deals with the Russian intelligence agency are baseless - our target killings and assassinations were ongoing in years before, and we did it on our own resources," he said. "That changed after our deal with the Americans, and their lives are secure, and we don't attack them."
Earlier this year, the U.S. and the Taliban signed an "agreement for bringing peace" to Afghanistan after more than 18 years of conflict. The U.S. and NATO allies agreed to withdraw all troops by next year if the militants uphold the deal.