Esper, in House testimony, says he had not received a briefing referencing the word ‘bounty’
Defense Secretary Mark Esper testified on Thursday that he had no recollection of receiving any briefings that “included the word bounty,” amid reports claiming Russia offered bounties to Afghan militants for killing U.S. soldiers.
During a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Esper was asked about the reports.
“To the best of my recollection, I have not received a briefing that included the word bounty,” Esper said.
Esper was then asked where the intelligence on Russian bounties came from, to which he replied: “It was not produced by a DoD intelligence agency.”
The New York Times first reported that Moscow allegedly offered bounties to Afghan militants to kill U.S. soldiers last month. Fox News also reported last month that multiple intelligence threat streams indicated Russian intelligence operatives offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. troops.
The Washington Post further reported that the Russian bounties are “believed to have resulted in the deaths of several U.S. service members.” And The Associated Press reported that officials said an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three Marines in Afghanistan is under investigation.
But the White House has insisted there was “no consensus” that the intelligence that Russia offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. troops was accurate, which is why, it said, the issue was never flagged to President Trump or Vice President Pence.
The White House has denied that Trump was briefed on the issue despite reporting to the contrary from outlets like the New York Times, which reported late Monday that the bounty issue was in the written President’s Daily Brief earlier this year. It has been widely reported, however, that Trump does not read the detailed brief regularly and is more often briefed on intelligence issues verbally.
Meanwhile, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien last week claimed that Trump’s CIA briefer made the call not to share with him the intelligence referencing Russia allegedly offering bounties to Afghan militants for killing U.S. soldiers.
“The president was not briefed because, at the time of these allegations, they were uncorroborated,” O’Brien said, noting that the Pentagon also has said the intelligence was uncorroborated.
“The intelligence community doesn’t have a consensus,” O’Brien continued. “And as a result, the president’s career CIA briefer decided not to brief him because it was unverified intelligence.”
The CIA briefer O’Brien was referring to would have been Beth Sanner, who was the president’s primary intelligence briefer during the time in question when the Russia bounty intelligence emerged. Sanner was appointed as the deputy director of National Intelligence for Mission Integration last year. Sanner had been leading the president’s daily intelligence briefing since April 2017.
O’Brien defended Sanner as “an outstanding officer.”
“Knowing all the facts I know, I certainly support her decision,” O’Brien said Wednesday.
But sources familiar with the president’s intelligence briefings told Fox News that the “daily briefer,” as Sanner was known, does not have the authority to remove an item from the intelligence brief without approval from a more senior official. The sources suggested that, in this case, the CIA director, the director of national intelligence or O’Brien would have been the officials who needed to approve the removal.
A senior U.S. official who had been briefed on the matter told Fox News earlier last week that the information that the National Security Council had received was based on “several streams of intelligence of concern” with some of it being contradictory and some open to interpretation.
Fox News’ Lucas Tomlinson, Jennifer Griffin, Gillian Turner and the Associated Press contributed to this report.