WASHINGTON • Former vice-president Joe Biden has assailed President Donald Trump for failing to punish Russia over its offer of bounties to the Taleban to kill US troops in Afghanistan, while the White House denied that Mr Trump had been briefed on the months-old classified intelligence assessment about Russia's activities.
Citing officials briefed on the matter, The New York Times reported last Friday that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly paid Taleban-linked militants to target coalition troops in Afghanistan, including Americans, and that Mr Trump had been briefed about it.
The article also said the White House's National Security Council had discussed the problem at an inter-agency meeting in late March, but that no response had yet been authorised.
Mr Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, portrayed that as shameful.
"Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin," Mr Biden said in a virtual town hall event held by a voter group, Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote.
"His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale," Mr Biden added. "It's a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation, to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm's way."
The officials briefed on the matter said the intelligence assessment was based at least in part on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals. The officials said the assessment had been treated as a closely held secret but that the administration expanded briefings about it over the past week - including sharing information about it with the British government, whose forces are among those said to have been targeted.
But as criticism of the administration's inaction swelled on Friday and Saturday, the White House said Mr Trump had never been told about the intelligence assessment.
"While the White House does not routinely comment on alleged intelligence or internal deliberations, the CIA director, national security adviser and the chief of staff can all confirm that neither the president nor the vice-president was briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement on Saturday afternoon.
About six hours later, the director of national intelligence, Mr John Ratcliffe, issued a statement echoing the White House's statement that Mr Trump had not been briefed on the intelligence finding.
But one US official told The Times that the intelligence finding that the Russians had offered and paid bounties to Afghan militants and criminals had been briefed at the highest levels of the White House.
Another said it was included in the President's Daily Brief, a document that draws from spywork to make analytic predictions about long-standing adversaries, unfolding plots and emerging crises around the world. The document is given to the president to read, and it serves as the basis for oral briefings to him several times a week.
Asked on Saturday night how Mr Trump could not have known about the report if it had been in his daily brief, a National Security Council spokesman did not respond.
Ms McEnany did not question the substance of the intelligence assessment, saying only that her statement "did not speak to the merit of the alleged intelligence". She also did not challenge the Times' reporting that the National Security Council had convened an inter-agency meeting about what to do about the report in late March. She did not explain why such an important report would have been withheld from Mr Trump. Nor did she indicate whether Mr Trump was upset at his subordinates for purportedly withholding the information from him.
US officials reached on Saturday said it strained credulity to think that White House national security officials would be discussing such an important matter for months and even brief British officials about it and never provide the information to Mr Trump.