WASHINGTON — The Trump administration told Republican members of Congress on Monday that intelligence about potential Russian bounties may have been included at some point in the President's Daily Brief but not conveyed to President Donald Trump in a formal threat briefing because it wasn't yet "actionable," the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said.
"I believe it may have been" in the written President's Daily Brief, or PDB, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said in an interview.
Referring to the president, McCaul said: "I think the way the process works is that he gets briefed about three times a week on sort of actionable, credible items. And the decision was made that this was not at that point in time a credible, actionable piece of intelligence. And if at any point it did, it would be raised to his attention."
McCaul was one of eight House Republicans briefed in the Situation Room of the White House on Monday by the White House chief of staff, national security adviser and national intelligence director. A group of eight House Democrats was set to receive a similar briefing Tuesday morning.
The White House has insisted that Trump never received a "briefing" about intelligence indicating that Russia offered bounties to Afghan militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops. But both the White House and the national intelligence director's office have declined to say whether the information was in the PDB, the highly classified document produced for the president and other top officials, prompting speculation that Trump may simply have not read his briefing materials.
McCaul, who said he emerged from the briefing with deep concerns that the intelligence may be correct, said lawmakers were told that no U.S. service members had died as a result of Russia's paying Afghan militants to kill them.
"Their answer was no," McCaul said. "The intelligence had come out in January. It's right around the time of peace talks" in which the U.S. was negotiating with the Taliban for a temporary reduction in violence as a precursor to a broader political settlement.
The remarks add to deepening confusion about whether a Russian bounty offer was ever acted upon and when the U.S. learned about it. An official familiar with the intelligence said it showed that U.S. troops and Afghan civilians did die as a result, although other officials have indicated that that hasn't been corroborated. The Associated Press reported late Monday that the White House learned of the intelligence in early 2019, a year earlier than other reports have indicated.
Since the allegations erupted in the media, Trump has asserted that the intelligence community didn't find it credible. But in another indication that the national security community apparently took the intelligence seriously, McCaul said the Trump administration officials disclosed that changes had been made in protocols to protect U.S. service members operating in the region, known as "force protection," in response.
"They did stress that fact that they did everything possible to protect our forces over there," McCaul said. "And the record, according to them, the fact no one had been killed, you know, I think speaks to that."
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Still, McCaul and other Republicans left the hearing calling for swift action to respond if the intelligence is corroborated. McCaul said that if the allegations prove true, the U.S. should impose heavy sanctions on the GRU, the Russian military intelligence unit implicated by the intelligence.
McCaul also said any discussion about allowing Russia back into the Group of 7 nations "should be off the table." Trump has repeatedly advocated for allowing President Vladimir Putin back into the club of nations, from which he was expelled in 2014 in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea.
The House Republicans were told that the National Security Council was vetting the intelligence after various intelligence agencies disagreed about its veracity, McCaul said, with one intelligence agency, which he didn't identify, having filed a "dissenting view."
Still, several months have passed since the intelligence first came in, and McCaul acknowledged that it was unclear whether the NSC had been actively validating or seeking more information before the allegations became public in a New York Times article, triggering massive public pressure for answers.
"That's a very good question. What they told me that was that they had been in the process of vetting through the NSC," McCaul said. He added that CIA Director Gina Haspel and John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, were embarking on a "scrub of all the intelligence data out there to check for the veracity and credibility."