WASHINGTON – The White House is blaming intelligence officials who leaked information about an alleged Russian bounty program in Afghanistan for potentially blowing almost any chance of coming to a consensus on whether the threat was real.
Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Tuesday criticized “rogue intelligence officers” for putting the lives of U.S. troops in danger, while defending the decision not to brief President Donald Trump on what she described as unverified intelligence.
McEnany also used her opening comments to berate The New York Times, which first broke the story about allegations Russia offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
“There is no good scenario as a result of this,” she told reporters. “Who’s going to want to cooperate with the United States intelligence community? Who’s going to want to be a source or an asset if they know that their identity could be disclosed?”
McEnany further warned that the leaks, and the attention being given to the unproven allegations, is also weakening the country as a whole.
“This level of controversy and discord plays directly into the hands of Russia, and unfortunately, serves their interests,” she said.
The Times added to its reporting Tuesday that according to three officials familiar with the intelligence, U.S. officials had intercepted data that shows large financial transactions from an account controlled by the Russian military intelligence agency to one linked to the Taliban.
The White House comments Tuesday came as lawmakers and Trump’s likely opponent in November’s presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden, spent the day sounding off on new White House briefings as new details on the intelligence continued to emerge.
Media outlets, including The New York Times and CNN, reported some of the information on the alleged Russian plot had been included in the Presidential Daily Brief, a daily summary of the top intelligence issues, in late February. Other reports suggest Trump was given written information about the matter earlier this year.
“The idea that somehow he didn’t know or isn’t being briefed, it is a dereliction of duty if that is the case,” Biden said, while taking questions from reporters after a speech in Wilmington, Delaware.
Americans should “conclude that this man isn’t fit to be president of the& United States of America,” he added.
Other top Democrats also voiced frustration following briefings at the White House with Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
“Very concerning to me was that their initial response was that they just wanted to make sure we knew that the president didn’t know anything,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Rep. Adam Smith, told reporters. “That’s actually not normal.”
“Based on what we heard today, it was information that (a), the president should have known about and (b), based on what we were told today, he did,” Smith added.
Other senior Democratic lawmakers also expressed concerns about the administration’s handling of the intelligence and specifically, its inclination to downplay the possible consequences.
“Nothing in the briefing that we have just received led me to believe it is a hoax,” said House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer.
Other Democrats said they were more concerned about what happens next.
“Instead of dithering about what he knew, what he didn’t know, he should have a plan,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. “And above all, go after [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
Despite the criticism, the White House and some Republican lawmakers insisted the handling of intelligence suggesting Russian agents were offering to pay for the deaths of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan was handled properly.
“What is briefed to the president is when there’s a strategic decision to be made,” McEnany said. “In this case, it was not briefed to the president. … It was not credible.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Republican chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, agreed.
“There’s some confusion as far as our own intelligence, and it just didn’t rise to the level of the president at that time,” he said. “Our intelligence agencies aren’t in complete agreement on this, even now.”
In a statement late Monday, the top Defense Department spokesman said that while officials there were aware of the intelligence, the Pentagon “has no corroborating evidence” to back up the initial intelligence reports.
Still, the Pentagon said it took additional precautions to protect troops.
Other top intelligence officials also suggested the unverified intelligence was shared across the U.S. intelligence community and with allies whose troops were potentially at risk.
Additional media reports say intelligence about the alleged plot had been sent to the White House last year and focused on an April 2019 car bombing that killed three Marines.
Some officials say Trump often does not read his daily briefing and instead prefers oral briefings several times a week.
McEnany said Trump has now been briefed on “what’s unfortunately in the public domain.”
“The president does read, and he also consumes intelligence verbally,” she added. “This president, I will tell you, is the most informed person on planet Earth when it comes to the threats that we face.”
Katherine Gypson and Steve Herman contributed to this report.