Congress Presses Military Leaders on Suspected Russian Bounties

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Michael J. Morell, a former acting C.I.A. director, portrayed that as scapegoating in testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee. He pointed out that the briefer is the lowest-ranking person in the room during the president’s regular intelligence briefings, and said the national security adviser, the C.I.A. director, the director of national intelligence or the White House chief of staff could also have brought the suspicions about Russian bounties to the president’s attention. He also noted that Mr. Esper receives a copy of the written President’s Daily Brief.

Mr. Morell also disputed the White House’s suggestion that an intelligence assessment had to be unanimously backed by intelligence agencies to be taken seriously. In previous administrations, he said, if the intelligence community assessed such information at any level of confidence, officials would have told both the president and congressional leaders immediately about that judgment and any dissent. If the confidence level were low, he said, an administration would seek more information before acting, while a medium- or high-level assessment would most likely result in a response.

“You never have certainty in intelligence,” Mr. Morell added.

John W. Nicholson Jr., a retired general who led coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2016 to the middle of 2018, testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee that Russia grew bolder over his tenure. Afghan governors, he said, brought him weapons and other military equipment and said Russians had provided them to the Taliban.

General Nicholson talked about Russian support for the Taliban publicly while still in that role, and he said on Thursday that it was important to respond to such findings — including by going public with accusations to elicit a response from Russia.

“It may just be denial, but you’ve got it on their radar screen,” he said. “They know they’re being watched. They know you’re pushing back. So these kinds of actions are extremely important. And of course, the higher up you go, the more powerful the response is.”

Later, pressed by a Republican lawmaker, Representative Lee Zeldin of New York, to comment on leaks of classified intelligence, General Nicholson noted that they were unhelpful — his comments were garbled in the live video of the hearing that was conducted remotely because of the pandemic — but then praised the hearing itself. He said that drawing attention to the American suspicions of the bounty plot could cause the Russians “to dial down what they are doing.”

The ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, said the government needed to take the intelligence seriously given Russia’s track record. He criticized Mr. Trump’s idea of inviting Russia to rejoin the economic alliance known as the Group of 7, and noted that the administration already had legal authority to impose new sanctions.