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Thornberry: Pulling troops from Afghanistan would be ‘tragic mistake’ amid bounty intel

Reports that Russia offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill American troops in Afghanistan have caused uproar on Capitol Hill. The highest-ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what lawmakers heard at Monday’s intelligence briefing and how the U.S. should respond if the reports are true.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to Texas Congressman Mac Thornberry. He is the highest ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. Earlier today, he received a briefing from the White House on these reports.

    And he joins us now from Capitol Hill.

    Congressman Thornberry, thank you very much for joining us.

    Tell us, what are they saying at the White House about these reports?

  • Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas:

    Well, our briefing today was of the classified intelligence information which is the basis for these concerns about Russians encouraging attacks against U.S. troops.

    And so we dug down a little deeper into the information. Like a lot of intelligence questions, it's not completely clear-cut. There are pieces of information, and some of it contradictory, and you have to try to put it all together to understand what's really happening.

    And so that's what we focused on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, as you know, The New York Times and now other news organizations are reporting that the Russians did offer bounty, paid bounty, to the Taliban to kill American troops. That's pretty direct.

    So, you're saying what you heard today was that this is not true or that it could be true?

  • Rep. Mac Thornberry:

    There are pieces of information that support it. There may be pieces that give a somewhat different view.

    But I think most of us would agree, if there's any hint of truth or any prospect of truth in the idea that Russia or any other country would put bounties on the head of U.S. service members, we have to treat it very seriously and pursue every lead and make sure our people are protected.

    And so I think that's got to be the mind-set moving forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what were you told with regard to whether President Trump was informed about this intelligence?

  • Rep. Mac Thornberry:

    We were told that he was not informed about the intelligence, because it had not been fleshed out, not proved credible enough to rise to his level.

    At the same time, the White House staff did begin to work on a menu of response options, in case further validating information would be — would come forward. So there were really, I think, from the White House perspective, two tracks.

    At the same time, I do believe that our forces in Afghanistan took action in case this represented an elevated threat to make sure our people were prepared and protected. And again, my view, and I think most of us believe that, whether you can prove it all the way or not, if there's a threat to our people, then we need to take decisive action to make sure our people are protected.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that's what I want to ask you about.

    If there is a chance that this information was correct, does it make sense to you, with such an explosive piece of information, that the president wouldn't have been briefed about it?

  • Rep. Mac Thornberry:

    Well, my default would be, if it's a threat to our troops, especially a state that is putting a bounty on the heads of our troops, yes, I would want to tell the president, and, yes, I would want to pursue it as vigorously as possible to track it down, and I would want to take all measures possible to protect our people.

    That is my default position. But I also acknowledge that into the White House every day come many, many threats that have to be evaluated, which ones make it to the president, which ones don't. They have to be fleshed out.

    And so all of us ought to be a little bit careful about second-guessing because of all the things that are going in there. But, again, my view is, if it's a threat to U.S. troops or might be a threat to U.S. troops, that's got to rise to the top.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think the White House is completely leveling with you?

  • Rep. Mac Thornberry:

    I assume they have told us — I assume what they have told us is accurate.

    But it is important for our committee on Armed Services, the Intel Committee on the House and Senate to pursue these issues, again, because there is so much at stake.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And if the intel community had this information and didn't share it with the president, what should happen with regard to the intelligence community?

  • Rep. Mac Thornberry:

    Well, the intelligence community must first pursue these lines of information, and I think they are doing that, certainly now, to find out if it is true or not, what the supporting evidence is.

    I think that, really, the decision is the advisers around the president on what to bring to his attention and whatnot.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, at this point, you're — at this point, is the White House pursuing this? Do you get the sense they take this seriously and you're going to get answers quickly?

  • Rep. Mac Thornberry:

    I do think, at this point, they are taking it seriously.

    I think there will be some other public statements coming. But, again, this is an allegation that ought to be pursued with all the instruments of the U.S. government.

    And the other thing is, it would be a tragic mistake for us to further reduce our troop presence in Afghanistan, because that would only encourage more of these sorts of threats to come about. So, we have got to, yes, pursue the intelligence and where it leads, but we have also got to have smart policy to not encourage this sort of thing by the Russians or anyone else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Congressman Mac Thornberry, ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, thank you very much.

  • Rep. Mac Thornberry:

    You're welcome.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And after we recorded those interviews earlier this evening, we learned that leading Democrats, including Chairman Adam Schiff, will receive a separate briefing tomorrow at the White House.

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