Lawmakers paralyzed by response to news about Russian premiums

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“I think there is conflicting intelligence about this,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, leader of GOP No. 4 and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, after a confidential briefing.

The Trump administration also appeared to cast doubt on the matter, with President Donald Trump and his associates questioning the accuracy of the information or labeling the premium reporting as an outright hoax. And Republicans in Congress recently rejected an amendment to the annual defense policy bill, drafted by Senator Robert Menendez (DN.J.), which would impose new sanctions on Moscow.

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

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

The impasse highlights the difficulties lawmakers face in facing an increasingly emboldened Russia – especially in an election year, where Republicans are unlikely to break publicly with the president, who has sought to maintain good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin even as he continues to alarm some in the GOP with his deferential posture towards the Russian leader.

“I am interested to hear an administration speak clearly about their plans which are not only hypothetical sanctions in the future, but what should we do now so that the GRU has more doubts about their behavior not only in Afghanistan, but more widely around the world, “said Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a frank falcon from Russia who sits on the intelligence panel.

The American intelligence community generally agrees that the Russian military intelligence unit has provided financial support to the Taliban to help finance the operations of the Taliban who killed coalition troops in Afghanistan. But a central dispute – described in a memo written recently by the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, confirmed earlier this month – remains over the motivations of the Russians.

While the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center assessed with “average confidence” that the GRU had paid bonuses to the Taliban fighters specifically to kill American soldiers – and that the operation had caused deaths – other agencies expressed “low confidence” in this assessment, stemming from difficulties in linking specific payments to certain attacks, according to people who saw the memo.

While the CIA has confidence in its human sources and interrogations in the field, the National Security Agency relies more on monitoring and intelligence signals to conduct assessments, and remains uncertain as to whether certain payments constitute “Bonuses” or if they are simply part of the larger Russian funding model for Taliban operations that ultimately kill coalition troops.

The intelligence community and the Pentagon are still investigating whether specific Taliban attacks on American soldiers are a direct result of GRU payments, national security officials have said. Yet lawmakers choose to point out that there is no disagreement about how Putin has used his intelligence agencies.

“Vladimir Putin runs real military and intelligence agencies and he masters many more puppets, and he tries to get them to be available to do horrible things to the Americans and our allies,” said Sasse.

Meanwhile, the Democrats appear to be giving Ratcliffe, the country’s highest intelligence official, a chance to prove himself as an apolitical figure, given his history as a staunch defender of the president. Some congressional officials raised eyebrows about the timing of his memo – which concluded that interagency premium intelligence assessments were still mixed and incomplete – as the White House had tried to present the problem as too uncertain to warrant an immediate response. But people familiar with the document said it was simple and factual.

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

“I did not support Mr. Ratcliffe,” added Warner. “Now that he’s in there, I want him to succeed. And as long as he is transparent and open with this committee – and we have tried to treat everyone with respect – I want to work with him. “

Democrats said they still trust career civil servants who make up the vast majority of the US intelligence community, but said they fear Ratcliffe will tell the president what he thinks he should hear.

“I have made it clear that I think the executive has an obligation to be honest with the American people, and the list could go on, but they are the ones who will be held to account,” said Senator Ron. Wyden (D- Ore.), A member of the intelligence committee, said in a brief interview. “Over the past 48 hours, the administration hasn’t even come close to a passing grade. “

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Acting Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised Ratcliffe and noted that he was forced to respond for intelligence assessments that could have taken place well before he was sworn in as director of national intelligence in May. 26. Some premium information was included in Trump’s written daily briefing, known as the Presidential Daily Brief, in February.

“The challenge with anything is what happened before your term – you have to sort of go back and reconstruct some of the things that happened and answer questions about it. But he’s up to it, he did very well, “said Rubio, who added that he spoke with Ratcliffe on a daily basis.

Ratcliffe has previously briefed the intelligence panel and a small group of congressional leaders, known as the Gang of Eight, on intelligence assessments related to the alleged Russian bonuses. Trump administration officials have also briefed small groups of lawmakers, including a contingent of House Democrats as well as members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But this latest briefing left senators, especially Democrats, unhappy with the amount of information they were getting. It was a regular briefing on Afghanistan, but lawmakers mainly asked about the bonus claims – in particular, if and when the president was actually informed of the assessment of the information.

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

“There was no one there who had information about the information that was provided to the president or when it was given to him,” added Warren. ” [They] we obviously didn’t know anything about the briefings to the president, that’s why we came. “

Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) agreed, calling the briefing “unsatisfactory” on who informed Trump and when, and suggested sanctions as a possible response to the Russian escalation. And she said that of the five award-related intelligence documents she had read at a secure Capitol facility, none confirmed that the White House said the ratings were not substantiated for disclosure to the president.

“The documents I have read are consistent with what has been reported so far,” she told reporters. “As far as I know, what exists is correct. “

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