Congress candidates spar over whether Russia paid bounties on U.S. soldiers

(Cobb photo by Enterprise, Stefanik photo by Watertown Daily Times)

Intelligence officials remain unable to verify whether Russia offered Taliban-linked militants cash rewards for killing American and allied forces in Afghanistan.

In light of this, Rep. Elise Stefanik’s reelection campaign is calling on her Democratic opponent, Tedra Cobb, to pull her ads criticizing the congresswoman over the issue.

First, some background: On June 26, the New York Times published a story with the headline, “Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says.” The article said CIA intelligence indicated that a Russian intelligence unit, linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations around the Western world, offered rewards to Taliban-linked Islamist militants in Afghanistan in exchange for confirmed kills of coalition troops, including Americans.

The New York Times report also said President Donald Trump and the White House National Security Council were briefed on the topic in late March but had not taken action, as of the article’s publication. That report was later verified by the Associated Press, The Washington Post and other national news organizations.

Since the NYT story was published, Cobb has repeatedly criticized Stefanik for what she’s termed “silence” on the issue of Russian bounties. Two days after the NYT article was published, Cobb released a statement calling on Stefanik to join some other Republican members of Congress and call for an independent investigation into the claims and the administration’s handling of the topic.

Stefanik’s campaign released a statement two days after Cobb first called on her to respond to the NYT article, calling the intelligence “illegal leaks” and bashing Cobb. Since that statement’s release, Stefanik has stuck to that assessment and routinely said it’s inappropriate for an elected official, or candidate for public office, to discuss unverified, illegally released intelligence.

“My opponent is discussing unverified and frankly illegal leaks, which is unfit for a candidate for office, but certainly unacceptable for an elected official,” she said in an interview with the NYT on July 1.

Over the subsequent two-and-a-half months, Cobb and her campaign have continued to hammer Stefanik for her “silence,” releasing numerous press releases and campaign ads criticizing the congresswoman.

On Tuesday, the Stefanik campaign called on Cobb’s campaign to stop airing one such ad. The ad, which was released on Sept. 8, criticizes Stefanik for her “silence” on the bounties, intercut with photos of Stefanik with Trump, photos of American troops and war footage.

“Intelligence reports say Russia is offering the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. troops,” the Cobb ad’s narrator said. “Instead of outrage and action, Elise Stefanik and Donald Trump remain silent, unwilling to confront Putin to protect our troops.”

The Stefanik campaign cites an NBC report released Monday in which Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, said Pentagon officials have not been able to verify the existence of a bounty program after reviewing all available evidence.

“It just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me,” McKenzie told NBC. He said it’s “not a closed issue” and that the U.S. is still seeking new information on the matter.

The Stefanik campaign on Tuesday called Cobb’s repeated assertions that Russia put bounties on American soldiers false and “disgusting,” using the NBC report as evidence that her claims are, and have been inaccurate.

“Tedra Cobb’s campaign ad claiming Russian bounties is not only false, it is shameful and smears our military leaders in Afghanistan by ignoring the facts as well as their military and intelligence assessments,” said Madison Anderson, Stefanik’s campaign spokesperson. “Tedra Cobb should immediately take this disgusting and untruthful ad off the air.”

Gabbie Hart, Cobb’s campaign manager, said in a statement there are no plans to take the ad off the air.

“Voters in the North Country deserve to know that Elise Stefanik has remained silent on this critical issue,” she said.

In a statement sent Tuesday afternoon, Cobb said she continues to see Stefanik defending the president at the expense of her constituents.

“In Elise Stefanik’s desperation to defend Donald Trump, she has eagerly ignored CIA assessments,” Cobb said. “That decision leaves American troops, many from Fort Drum, in a deadly position. It has been months since this story broke and in that time, Donald Trump and Elise Stefanik have done nothing. She is protecting her own access to the president over the safety of our troops.”


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