Esper also told lawmakers on Thursday that he never received any intelligence briefing that included the word “bounty,” in response to a carefully worded question about the reports.
The narrow remarks left open the possibility that intelligence officers briefed Esper and other Pentagon leaders on the issue, but did not use that particular wording.
“To the best of my recollection I have not received a briefing that included the word bounty,” Esper said in response to questions from Republican Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio). “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 added that the intelligence reports on the bounty program was not produced by the Defense Department, and defense intelligence agencies have been unable to corroborate them.
Lawmakers have expressed outrage at reporting that the administration knew about the alleged Russia bounty program and failed to respond. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Thursday sent a letter to Esper requesting he investigate U.S. troop casualties in Afghanistan to determine whether any deaths are connected to the program.
She also expressed frustration that the closed briefing provided to the committee on July 1 did not include any member of the intelligence community.
“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?” Duckworth asked in a statement. “Gold Star Families deserve an answer to this question.”