Two “gang of eight” members on Tuesday seemed to offer different assessments when asked whether the group — consisting of the top four congressional leaders and the leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence committees — were briefed on intelligence that Russia offered bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops.
“No,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said flatly Tuesday when asked if the group had been briefed on the matter before the New York Times and other outlets reported it this weekend.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, however, indicated the group had received some bits of intelligence related to the matter while saying he couldn’t comment on specifics.
“I can say that we have been kept informed over time of Russia’s malign activities in Afghanistan,” the California Democrat said. “Whether we have been kept fully informed or not may be a different question, but we have been kept informed. And that’s probably as specific as I can be.”
Meanwhile, a small group of House Democrats who attended a White House briefing Tuesday morning on the topic said they did not really learn anything new from it.
“It really kind of left me with no answer,” Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel said, noting he did not leave the briefing with any knowledge he didn’t have going in.
“That would be my view as well,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said, noting the lawmakers received no substantive information during the briefing.
The Maryland Democrat said he was disappointed that the briefers were not from the CIA and NSA. He said having intelligence briefers would have been useful so the lawmakers could understand their assessment on how credible the allegations are.
The majority leader reiterated the need for all members of the House and Senate to be briefed by intelligence officials, but said he received no commitments from the White House on that front.
“I mentioned it at least three or four times. I was not given that assurance. I don’t know that that will happen,” Hoyer said.
“Nothing in the briefing that we’ve just received led me to believe it is a hoax. There may be different judgments as to the level of credibility, but there was no assertion that the information we had was a hoax,” Hoyer said.
Other Democrats who attended the briefing were Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith of Washington and Reps. Gregory Meeks of New York, Brad Sherman of California, Bill Keating of Massachusetts, Ruben Gallego of Arizona, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey.
After the briefing, Smith told reporters there was clearly evidence of Russian involvement in Afghanistan, and the matter should have been explored further.
“It really is troubling to me that when presented with a piece of information like this, the public stance of the White House was, ‘Let’s just make it clear that the president had nothing to do with this.’ That should not be your priority on an issue like this,” he said.
A group of House Republicans went to the White House on Monday for a briefing and similarly left with unanswered questions. Armed Services ranking member Mac Thornberry of Texas and Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming said there were intelligence officials at the briefing but said they have further questions they want answered.
On Monday evening, as the news continued to spread about the Russian bounties, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she spoke to Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and CIA Director Gina Haspel about getting answers about the media reports about the bounties.
“My call to each of them was to follow up on my formal request for a full House briefing on the intelligence surrounding Russian bounties,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Schiff said he couldn’t confirm or deny any underlying intelligence but nonetheless seemed to focus on the administration’s response.
“We should be considering what sanctions are appropriate to further deter Russia’s malign activities, not further ingratiating Russia into the community of civilized nations,” he said.
The lawmakers declined to say whether they learned if the issue was included in the president's written daily intelligence briefing, but Schiff said they did touch on the distinctions of written and oral briefings.
In general, Schiff said the intelligence community should brief the president in “the manner in which he or she receives information.”
“If the president doesn’t read the briefs it doesn’t work to give him written product,” he said.
Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.