Lawmakers paralyzed by response to Russia’s intelligence reward

“I think there are conflicting intelligence elements in this,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican Party’s No. 4 leader and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, after a classified briefing.

The Trump administration also seemed to cast doubt on the matter, with President Donald Trump and his advisers questioning the accuracy of the intelligence or labeling the reports on the rewards as an absolute hoax. And Republicans in Congress recently rejected an amendment to the annual defense policy bill, written by Senator Robert Menendez (DN.J.), which would impose new sanctions on Moscow.

Both Democrats and Republicans have supported tighter sanctions against Russia as punishment for its evil activities, including its interference in the 2016 election and its annexation of Crimea in 2014. But the Trump administration has repeatedly hesitated to fully deploy the sanctions regime. that Congress authorized in 2017, and Republicans have rarely used their influence to pressure the White House on the issue.

“There are still a whole host of questions about what our policy is towards Russia, and why there seems to be this reluctance to denounce Russian wrongdoing,” said Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Vice Chairman of the Intelligence Committee. .

The stalemate underscores the difficulties lawmakers face in facing an increasingly emboldened Russia, especially in an election year, when Republicans are unlikely to publicly break with the president, who has tried to maintain a good relationship with the Russian president. Vladimir Putin, even as he continues to alarm. some in the Republican Party with their deferential stance towards the Russian leader.

“I am interested in hearing an administration speak clearly about its plans that are not just hypothetical sanctions in the future, but what we should be doing now so that the GRU has more doubts about its behavior not only in Afghanistan, but more widely throughout the world. world, “said Senator Ben Sasse (Republican), an open hawk from Russia who is part of the intelligence panel.

The United States intelligence community generally agrees. that Russia’s military intelligence unit has been providing financial support to the Taliban to help finance Taliban operations that have killed coalition troops in Afghanistan. But a core dispute, outlined in a memorandum written by recently confirmed Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe earlier this month, continues on the Russians’ motives.

While the CIA and the National Counter-Terrorism Center have evaluated with “medium confidence” that the GRU has paid rewards to Taliban fighters specifically for killing US soldiers, and that the operation has resulted in deaths, other agencies have expressed ” little confidence “in that assessment, stemming from difficulties linking specific payments to certain attacks, according to people who have seen the memo.

While the CIA is confident in its human sources and in interrogations conducted on the ground, the National Security Agency relies more heavily on surveillance and signal intelligence to conduct evaluations, and remains unsure whether certain payments constitute “rewards.” or if they are just part of the broader pattern of Russian funding for Taliban operations that ultimately kill coalition troops.

The intelligence community and the Pentagon continue to investigate whether specific Taliban attacks on US soldiers resulted directly from GRU payments, current national security officials said. Still, lawmakers are choosing to emphasize that there is no disagreement on how Putin has used his intelligence agencies.

“Vladimir Putin runs true military and intelligence agencies and is much more dominating over the puppets and trying to make them available to do horrible things to the Americans and our allies,” said Sasse.

Meanwhile, Democrats appear to be giving Ratcliffe, the nation’s top intelligence official, a chance to prove himself a non-political figure, given his history as a strident advocate for the president. Some congressional officials raised their eyebrows over the timing of their memo, which concluded that inter-agency rewards intelligence evaluations were still mixed and incomplete, given White House attempts to frame the issue as too uncertain to warrant an immediate response. . But people familiar with the document said it was direct and real.

“I don’t think Ratcliffe has been in this job long enough to characterize whether he will play well and do his job or whether he will have a more political role,” said Senator Martin Heinrich (DN.M.), Member of the Intelligence Committee. . “I think he has a lot to do to build trust given his previous role on cable news networks.”

“I did not support Mr. Ratcliffe,” added Warner. “Now he is inside, I want him to succeed. And as long as he’s transparent and close with this committee, and we’ve tried to treat everyone with respect, I want to work with him. “

Democrats emphasized that they still had confidence in the career officials who make up the vast majority of the U.S. intelligence community, but said they are concerned that Ratcliffe would not tell the president what they think he needs to hear.

“I made it clear that I believe the executive branch has an obligation to be honest with the American people, and that the list could go on, but he is the guy who will be responsible,” said Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Member of the Intelligence Committee said in a brief interview. “In the last 48 hours, the administration is not even close to a passing grade.”

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Acting Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised Ratcliffe, noting that he was forced to answer for intelligence assessments that could have occurred long before he was sworn in as director of national intelligence. in May. 26. Some of the information about rewards was included in Trump’s written daily report, known as the Presidential Daily Report, in February.

“The challenge with anything is the things that happened before his term; you have to go back and reconstruct some of the things that happened and answer questions about it. But he is up to the task, he did very well, “said Rubio, adding that he talks to Ratcliffe every day.

Ratcliffe has already briefed members of the Intelligence panel and a smaller group of congressional leaders, known as the Band of Eight, about intelligence assessments related to the alleged Russian rewards. Trump administration officials also briefed smaller groups of lawmakers, including a contingent of House Democrats and members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But the latest report left senators, particularly Democrats, dissatisfied with the amount of information they were obtaining. It was a regularly scheduled briefing on Afghanistan, but lawmakers were mainly asking about the reward allegations, in particular, whether and when the president received information about the intelligence assessment.

“That was not a briefing,” frustrated Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), A member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a brief interview last week after leaving the secure Senate facility.

“There was no one there who had information on what information was given to the president or when it was given to him,” Warren added. “[They] obviously they didn’t know anything about the briefings with the president, so we came. ”

Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) agreed, calling the meeting “unsatisfactory” on the question of who reported to Trump and when, and suggested sanctions as a possible response to the Russian escalation. And he said that of the five reward-related intelligence documents he had read at a secure Capitol facility, none supported White House claims that the assessments were too corroborated to release to the President.

“The documents I read are consistent with what has been reported so far,” he told reporters. “As far as I can tell, what’s out there is accurate.”