WH’s Handling of Russian Bounty Intel ‘Unacceptable’: Rep. Smith
UPDATED with Pentagon and Sen. Inhofe statements WASHINGTON: Rep. Adam Smith was far from reassured by a classified White House brief this morning on allegations that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, offered bounties to Afghan terrorists for killing US troops.
“What I can say is that there’s certainly evidence of Russian involvement, and I think we should do more to pursue that and do more to hold the Russians accountable for their activity in Afghanistan,” Smith told reporters at the Defense Writers’ Group this morning. “I have not yet seen enough to tell me whether or not the Trump administration responded in what I think would be an appropriate way.”
One glaring, basic issue that Smith thinks is making the situation more difficult to manage results from the enormous turnover in top Trump Administration positions. “As I was sitting in the brief, something that came up frequently was ‘well, I wasn’t here then,’” Smith said. “The senior level leaders in this briefing… not a single one of them had been working in that in the administration — forget in that particular position, even in the administration — for longer than six or nine months.”
The first reports from Afghanistan seem to have reached the White House in February, Smith said. But the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, was only confirmed in May, while the White House Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, took that job in March. Both came straight from Congress. National Security Advisor Mark O’Brien, a former State Department hostage negotiator, took office in September.
“It’s a huge problem,” Smith said. “That inconsistency in top leadership positions in intel harmed their ability to react to this in a coherent fashion. And you can layer on top of that the president consistently saying he doesn’t believe what the intel community tells him if he doesn’t like what they’re telling him.”
UPDATE Smith’s counterpart in the other chamber, Senate Armed Services chairman James Inhofe — a Republican — said he was satisfied with the White House’s story. “After a very long briefing, I’m confident that President Trump didn’t know about the reporting – that intel was continuing to be assessed before he was brought into it,” ran Inhofe’s prepared remarks to the Senate this afternoon. “Another takeaway from the briefing: that our intelligence agencies aren’t in complete agreement on this. So this is going to continue to be a Washington, DC story – one where they try to make the president look bad.”
President Trump has said he was never briefed on the bounties before the story broke in The New York Times. Smith finds that response profoundly troubling.
“[It’s] very concerning to me was that their initial response was, they just wanted to make sure that we knew that the President didn’t know anything,” Smith said. “That’s actually not normal. I realize that we’ve sort of suspended our idea of what’s normal, but … this is my fourth president [since being elected to Congress]: I cannot recall under Bush, Obama, Clinton, them wanting to come out and say look, ‘the President didn’t know anything.’
“It is unacceptable to have come out and said the president knows nothing about this,” Smith continued. “Clearly, based on what we heard today, it was information that, A, the president should have known about, [and, B] it’s hard for me to believe — based on the way it was presented — that the president knew nothing about it as he stated… He should have at least known the basics of it.”
“I think the quote that best defines the Trump presidency … was in response to a COVID question several months ago at a press briefing,” Smith mused. “He said, ‘I take responsibility for nothing.’ I think that that sort of sums up the way he looks at his job. If anything goes bad, first, and most importantly, ‘I had nothing to do with it.’ That’s not my vision of leadership.”
Troops Out Of Germany?
The Russian bounties weren’t the only issue discussed at this morning’s briefing that worried Smith. The Trump declaration that he’d withdrew thousands of US troops based in Germany “came up at our briefing this morning,” Smith said. “Concerns were raised about… is pulling the troops out of Germany a favor to Russia at the same time that they’ve got this bounty thing going?”
“The White House very strenuously pushed back on that,” Smith said. “The way they pitched it to us was that we’re not taking troops out of Europe; we wish to reposition them to more forward positions,” possibly including new bases in Poland and other Eastern European countries.
But there’s no clarity on what troops are actually going where, Smith said, and Congress must get answers before acting on the administration’s policy. “We need to know what they’re talking about doing,” he said, “and I think it’s appropriate for the moment to say, ‘yeah, hold up. Until we know where you’re going and what you’re doing on this, we don’t think it’s a good idea.’”
UPATE Later that day, the Pentagon released a formal statement on the Germany plan: “The Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff briefed the President yesterday on plans to redeploy 9,500 troops from Germany. The proposal that was approved not only meets the President’s directive, it will also enhance Russian deterrence, strengthen NATO, reassure Allies, improve U.S. strategic flexibility and U.S. European Command’s operational flexibility, and take care of our service members and their families. Pentagon leaders look forward to briefing this plan to the congressional defense committees in the coming weeks, followed by consultations with NATO allies on the way forward. We will be providing timely updates to potentially affected personnel, their families and communities as planning progresses.” There were no further specifics.
“It is possible that there is a scenario where repositioning troops out of Germany is in our national security interests,” he said. “The president has not made that case. To date, the DoD has not made that case, and they’re doing it, or the president is doing it, in a very haphazard manner.”
“This is part of the problem with the way President Trump likes to announce decisions,” Smith said, without the traditional consultation with the Defense Department, State Department and foreign allies. “The president has a way of simply unilaterally saying, ‘we’re pulling them out,’ and then they backfill the plan. I think that is very problematic… and again, I think we have to understand this is not normal.”