MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
American officials are investigating reports that Russia paid bounties to Taliban-linked fighters to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. The White House maintains President Trump was not personally briefed on the matter until this week. Republicans were learning more at the White House yesterday. Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming was there.
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LIZ CHENEY: We are going to continue to work with the administration. We anticipate additional briefings on this issue. But I want to be absolutely clear that America's adversaries should know, and they should have no doubt, that any targeting of U.S. forces by Russians, by anyone else, will face a very swift and deadly response.
KELLY: House Democrats got their briefing at the White House this morning. Here's Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
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STENY HOYER: We have no higher duty than to protect our men and women that we send into harm's way. This was a red flag. It either was not waved or the president ignored the wave.
KELLY: Also there was Representative Elissa Slotkin. She's a Democrat from Michigan, used to work at both CIA and the Department of Defense. I asked her whether the intelligence about Russian bounties sounded credible.
ELISSA SLOTKIN: First of all, certainly as someone who is married to an Army officer - my stepdaughter is now serving in the Army herself - it has to be the first and primary responsibility of any commander in chief to say, if there is even the possibility of a threat to U.S. forces that we're going to do everything in our power to, A, make sure there's force protection and enhance it in places like Afghanistan, but then, B, ferret out what's actually going on here and whether we have a more strategic problem.
So I left feeling like there may have been and may still be some real debate among the intelligence community about this intelligence. I'd like to hear that from them. But either way, it was hard for me to understand why this hadn't been a topic of conversation that was brought up with the president directly, particularly when you think about the fact that, you know, during the same time period between March 30 and, I think, June 3, the president spoke by phone to Vladimir Putin five times.
SLOTKIN: So that was the thing I couldn't wrap my head around. And I asked directly. And I - that was a point I spent some time on today.
KELLY: You said you asked directly. What exactly did you ask, and what answer did you get?
SLOTKIN: I wanted to know how - with all this thinking about Russia, with all the conversation that I assume has gone on that goes into the president suggesting that they might rejoin the G-7, how is it that no one said, Mr. President, we're not sure what the - you know, the veracity of all the intelligence, but I want you to know that we do have some reports that the Russians may have put a bounty on the heads of U.S. soldiers?
KELLY: The New York Times is now citing officials, plural officials, who say it was in the president's daily brief way back in February. Can you add anything to our understanding of what's going on here?
SLOTKIN: I think it's one thing to have an article in the president's book, you know, that can be 40, 50 pages. It's another thing for the briefer to pull that piece out and say, Mr. President, I've got three or five things I want to talk to you about today. Here are the top three or five things. And we know that he's not a huge reader of intelligence, so I think it's incumbent on the senior folks around him to make sure that he's getting the information in the way he's going to hear it.
KELLY: How much of this is on the intelligence community? Is it acceptable for the intelligence community not to make sure that the president was told about a matter as potentially significant as the killing of American troops?
SLOTKIN: You know, I think ultimately, the intelligence community has a responsibility if they identify a trend or a change, something new, something strategic, to identify it, to write about it, to verify it and to put that out there into what we call finished intelligence, something that's published for the president, his Cabinet and other senior folks who have security clearances. That's the job of the intelligence community.
What people decide to do at the end of that chain, whether they pick it up off out of the book and say, Mr. President, it's very important that you read this right now. You're about to get on yet another phone call with President Putin. We want you to just be aware - that's the responsibility of senior staff. And to me, that's where the breakdown seems to have happened. And, you know, the intelligence community put together a story as they saw it, which is their job.
KELLY: I want to note that it was only Democrats at the briefing this morning. Republicans were briefed first. They were briefed separately. I want to play you a tiny part of an interview I did last night with Republican Congressman Michael McCaul. He was among those who were briefed yesterday at the White House, and I asked him whether it concerned him that only Republicans were there.
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MICHAEL MCCAUL: No, because the opportunity was given also to Steny Hoyer and leadership in the Democrat - relevant committees. The same opportunity afforded to us was afforded to them.
KELLY: He's saying Democrats were invited. I mean, I'm raising this because intelligence is supposed to not be partisan. It's supposed to be too important to be politicized. Is it being politicized here?
SLOTKIN: Well, you know, in my experience, we should be receiving the same information whether you're Democrat or Republican. When it comes to the national security of the country, you know, we should all be putting politics aside and just getting the facts as we understand them. So I would have preferred that the briefings be joint. But I think, you know, it's going to be incumbent on everyone on either side of this to keep a clear head and stick to what we know.
And I don't love the fact, I'll be honest, as a former CIA officer that all of this stuff is being leaked. I don't like leaks. We shouldn't want leaks. But I also, as someone who's a stepmom of a daughter who could go off to Afghanistan in the next year, I want to know that they are doing everything in their power to protect U.S. forces on the ground. That's their job. You protect the troops. If you have questions about the information, you go and find the answers, and you run this to ground.
KELLY: That is Michigan Democrat Elissa Slotkin. She sits on two of those relevant committees, the House Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees.
Congresswoman, thanks as always for your time.
SLOTKIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.