Leaks last month alleging President Trump had been briefed in March 2019 that Russian agents were offering bounties on US service members in Afghanistan should alarm every American. The bounties may have resulted in a Taliban attack that killed three US Marines near Bagram Airfield on April 8, 2019, when their vehicle was hit by an explosive. Yet news reports indicate the Trump administration “is not planning an immediate response” because Trump does not consider the intelligence “actionable” and, according to a recent presidential tweet, is a “Fake News tale.”
To be sure, parsing leaked intelligence for ground truth is no simple exercise. The interests of those who leak information, access to additional intelligence to contextualize the leaks, and possible administration preference not to disclose concurrent follow-up investigations are among myriad factors to consider before reaching any meaningful conclusions. However, of the many Trump administration failures on the bounties intelligence — ensuring the president reviewed his intelligence reports, failing to share the intelligence with members of Congress and allies, dedicating resources expeditiously to validate the intelligence, and acting to protect service members from on-the-ground threats — the most disturbing is the president’s abdication of his responsibility as commander in chief to the women and men of the US Armed Forces.
There is a special trust that exists between those who serve and the president — both swear a solemn oath to defend the Constitution. Those who serve do so trusting that the president will do everything in his or her power to bring them home to their families. The notion of anything to the contrary has been described by some fellow Iraq and Afghanistan veterans this week as outrageous. Each of the three young Marines killed near Bagram Airfield — Sergeant Benjamin Hines of York, Pa.; Staff Sergeant Christopher Slutman of Newark, Del.; Corporal Robert Hendricks of Locust Valley, N.Y. — was somebody’s son, brother, husband, or fiancé. Around our country, Gold Star families and Blue Star families have expressed disbelief and incredulity at the president’s handling of the Russian bounty situation.
In this context, the actionability of the intelligence, which the Trump administration repeatedly highlighted last week, matters little. In a functional administration, reports of bounties paid by a nation-state to nongovernment militants to kill US service members would prompt an immediate White House response to drive urgent executive action. It should be duly noted that these allegations shouldn’t take anything away from the myriad hard-working and dedicated public servants within the intelligence community. The failure here is one of leadership from the top.
On its own, the commander in chief’s sacred duty to protect our troops, like the additional bad behavior that the bounties may encourage if left unchecked, would be reason enough to act. Consider, for example, what lessons Iran Quds Force leaders and their Middle East proxies might glean from Trump’s failure to follow up here. And consider what immediate, chilling effects a White House-proclaimed intent to act might have on Russian intent to pay further bounties. That’s why the White House’s publicly proclaimed inaction is so startling.
Congress can hold President Vladimir Putin of Russia accountable and protect our troops where the president has not. First, Congress can hold hearings to investigate who knew what, when. Next, it can exercise its oversight authority to address closable gaps in intelligence community reporting, sharing, or briefing. Moreover, if the intelligence is sufficiently supported, Congress may pass a resolution condemning Putin and the Russian government for its bounty payments, an act likely to slow any administration efforts to readmit Russia to the Group of 7 summit. Finally, congressional leaders can tie passage of the defense budget to administration action that holds Russia accountable. For those who question whether a congressional investigation is warranted, consider the bar for a congressional investigation into the attack on the US mission in Benghazi, a bar that unaddressed intelligence about alleged Russian bounties on American troops comfortably clears.
Whatever comes next, the American people, and American service members and their families, deserve answers. The administration must immediately provide a full accounting to Congress and to the American public. Since the president refuses to protect America’s national interests, Congress must act swiftly to hold Russia accountable and protect our troops. Our citizens, as well as our service members, veterans, and their families, deserve nothing less.
Maura C. Sullivan served as an assistant secretary at the US Department of Veterans Affairs and special assistant to the secretary of the Navy during the Obama administration. A resident of Portsmouth, N.H., she is an Iraq War veteran and a former Marine Corps officer.