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Schiff on reports of Russian bounties on U.S. troops — and whether Trump was briefed

Former U.S. military and intelligence officials say Russia has been offering Taliban fighters money to target U.S. troops. But the White House denies that President Trump was briefed on this alleged intelligence. Nick Schifrin reports, and Judy Woodruff talks to Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chair of the House Intelligence Committee, about potential implications for U.S. policy toward Russia.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the White House briefed Republicans on intelligence reports that Russia paid Taliban fighters, as we have been reporting, to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan, amid bipartisan concern about the president's statement that he had not been told about the intelligence.

    We will get to congressional leaders' response in a moment.

    But, first, Nick Schifrin reports new details on Russian bounty payments that U.S. officials fear killed U.S. troops.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In April 2019, a bomb planted by the Taliban in this spot killed three U.S. Marines. And intelligence officials investigated whether this American blood was on Russian hands.

    Last year, the Taliban are believed to have received Russian military intelligence money to target U.S. service members, former military and intelligence officials tell "PBS NewsHour." The payments were discovered by information taken from Taliban leaders, and when U.S. special operations forces found a large amount of American money during a Taliban raid.

    It was a dramatic increase in Russian support to the Taliban, already described in 2018 by then U.S. Commander General John Nicholson.

  • Gen. John Nicholson:

    We have had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and said, this was given by the Russians to the Taliban. We know that the Russians are involved.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, the Kremlin called that statement and today's reports — quote — "lies."

    But former U.S. intelligence officials say, in the last two years, as Americans trained Afghan forces and fought the Taliban, Russian involvement was always a collection priority. And it was always briefed up to senior levels.

    But, today, White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany reiterated, President Trump had never been briefed.

  • Secretary Kayleigh McEnany:

    The CIA director, NSA, 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.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Former intelligence officials say President Trump was part of briefings about Russian support before the U.S. signed a peace deal with the Taliban this past February. Since then, the Taliban have not attacked U.S. troops, but have killed hundreds of Afghan civilians and security forces, and launched a targeted assassination campaign against mosques with moderate clerics, journalists traveling in this van, and, just today, civilians in Helmand, leaving children bloody and orphaned.

    Forty years ago, the U.S. and Russia began a much more serious proxy battle in Afghanistan. After Soviet troops invaded, the U.S. funded Afghan fighters, who eventually forced the Soviets to leave. U.S. officials say the Russians have always wanted payback in Afghanistan, and they likely increased their assistance to the Taliban to upset U.S. plans and because the us hadn't pushed back strongly enough on prior Russian support.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's get reaction now from two key lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

    First up, we turn to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Adam Schiff of California. He joins us now from Capitol Hill.

    What do you believe happened here?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    Well, we want to get the full answers from the intelligence agencies. We have asked them to come in and physically brief our committee.

    The speaker has asked for a full House briefing on this as well. We want to know, are the Russians offering bounties to kill American troops? And, if they are, why is the president still seeking to have Russia brought in to the G8? Why is he giving Russia that favored status, welcoming them in the community of nations, and maintained this cozy relationship with Putin?

    That's not how we ought to treat a country that is trying to kill our people in Afghanistan. So, we want to get the full intel briefing on these allegations and find out whether this was part of the president's daily brief, and, if the intelligence agencies are still not briefing the president, why they're not briefing him.

    Is this an issue where they cannot tell the president things he doesn't want to hear when it comes to Vladimir Putin and Russia?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If the White House is saying, as it's reported from others today, that this was unconfirmed intelligence as part of an ongoing investigation, is it possible that this reporting just got ahead of what's going on?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    You know, anything is possible. It's also possible that we're not getting the straight scoop from the White House. It certainly wouldn't be the first time.

    But I would think, if the president is making a pitch to bring Russia into the G8, his people in the National Security Council would want to make sure he's aware of this.

    Now, they can caveat this and say, well, you know, we have X-amount of confidence in this intelligence, or we want to do further information, but before you invite the Russians back in, you should know about this.

    I don't know if those conversations took place, or they're just afraid of raising this with him, or he just doesn't care or doesn't read his presidential daily brief, but we ought to find out.

    These are the safety and the lives of our troops at stake. And you would hope that the commander in chief would want to hear this information and be able to evaluate it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How confident are you, Congressman Schiff, that the intelligence community is going to be straight with you on this? And if you find out that they didn't brief the president with what they knew, then what does that say to you?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    Well, I'd like to find out.

    And I can't comment on the classified information, but I would like to find out what they'd say in terms of their confidence regarding these allegations, if they felt they couldn't bring this to the president's attention, why they couldn't, or if they, in fact, did bring this to the president's attention.

    What the agencies ought to do is, they ought to supply the president with the best information, they ought to tell the president the limits of that information, but allow the president to make good decisions. If the president doesn't want to hear it, won't listen to it, won't hear a bad word said about Putin's Russia, then, obviously, we need to know about that, because then it falls on the Congress to protect the country, when the commander in chief won't.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you believe it's possible to determine whether or not the president was briefed on this or was informed in some manner?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    We should be able to.

    I have to think the White House will likely resist that. There are times where we are informed that this made it into the presidential daily brief. There are times when, I'm sure, they will fight that.

    But I would hope that we would be able to ascertain whether information is getting to the president and, as I mentioned, whether there's a separate issue about whether, as we see with Russian election interference, those that might raise it with the president at the Cabinet level don't do so because it's a good ticket out of the Cabinet if they do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You said a moment ago that this raises questions about the president inviting Russia — or talking inviting Russia into the G8.

    What should the punishment be for Russia if it turns out this is true, that they were offering bounty to the Taliban to kill Americans?

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    Well, I think that we would need to consider what additional sanctions on Russia are necessary.

    We certainly halt efforts to welcome Russia back on to the international stage, and it ought to tell us something about the peace process in Afghanistan, that we have a nation that is trying to subvert that peace process by incentivizing the Taliban to attack U.S. troops, again, if these allegations are correct.

    But it ought to inform all of our policy judgments, as well as what repercussions ought to take place in terms of Russia. At a minimum, though, we should — it ought to end the president's talk about welcoming Putin and Russia back into the community of nations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chairman Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee, we thank you very much.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    Thank you, Judy.

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