U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has ordered an investigation into leaks of both classified and unclassified material to media, he told members of the House Armed Services Committee during a July 9 hearing.
The probe comes after the recent leak of sensitive information to the media regarding the existence of intelligence that Russia allegedly offered bounty payments to Taliban-linked terrorists to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Citing anonymous officials, several news outlets claimed Russians have been paying the Taliban to assassinate U.S.-led coalition troops. Among some of the first media outlets to publish the claims regarding Russian bounties were The New York Times and The Washington Post, with the latter reporting on June 28 that several U.S. soldiers were believed to have died as a result of the program.
However, U.S. officials said the intelligence was suspect and that neither President Donald Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed on it. Russian officials have also denied the allegations.
“I’ve launched an investigation that is underway to go after leaks, whether it’s of classified information or unclassified information that is sensitive and also, you know, unauthorized discussions with the media,” Esper told the committee during the hearing about the military’s role in civil law enforcement.
“All those things, again, hurt our nation’s security. They undermine our troops, their safety. They affect our relations with other countries. They undermine our national policy.
“The illegal leaks are terrible. They’re happening across the government, particularly in the Defense Department.”
Esper also told lawmakers, “To the best of my recollection, I have not received a briefing that included the word ‘bounty,'” in reference to the killing of U.S. troops.
“If it was a credible report—that’s important, a credible corroborated report—that used those words, certainly it would have been brought to my attention,” Esper said, in response to a question by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio).
However, Esper later confirmed that he had seen the report but not “until February, when it came out in an intelligence piece of paper,” and that he, the head of U.S. Central Command, and the commander of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan looked into the matter and none thought the reports about Russian bounties were credible.
In June, President Donald Trump said that no one in his administration, including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Pence, briefed him on the allegations contained in the report, and described the reports as “fake news.”
“Nobody briefed or told me, @VP Pence, or Chief of Staff @MarkMeadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an ‘anonymous source’ by the Fake News @nytimes,” Trump wrote on Twitter on June 28. “Everybody is denying it.”
“There have not been many attacks on us. Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration,” he said.
However, lawmakers, including Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized the administration after reading reports claiming it was aware of the purported program and did nothing to respond.
On July 9, Duckworth, an Iraq War combat veteran, sent a letter to Esper requesting he investigate U.S. troop casualties in Afghanistan to determine whether any U.S. servicemember deaths were related to the alleged bounty program.
“It is unacceptable that to date, the Trump administration appears to be ignoring a matter of great importance to Gold Star Family members, whose loved ones were killed while serving in Afghanistan: Were any U.S. troop casualties in Afghanistan connected with the alleged GRU bounty payments to Taliban-linked militants? Gold Star Families deserve an answer to this question,” she wrote.