Leon E. Panetta is a former defense secretary and director of the CIA.
When the report came out that the United States had intelligence that the Russians were paying bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. troops and that the White House had not decided what to do about it, President Trump tweeted: “Nobody briefed or told me, [Vice President] Pence, or Chief of Staff [Mark Meadows] about the so-called attacks on our troops.”
Wrong answer, Mr. President. The fact that you or your staff were not “briefed” on this critical intelligence does not excuse the White House for its failure to take action to defend our troops. The answer is not “nobody briefed or told me.” The answer is: What is the United States going to do about it?
If Russians are, in fact, paying money to those killing our men and women in uniform, they are just as guilty of murder as those pulling the trigger. What they are doing is as close to an act of war as you can get, and it demands that we do everything necessary to defend our troops.
No matter what excuses the president puts forward, there is nothing that can justify the failure to act. The president’s duty as commander in chief is not just to defend the nation but also to defend the men and women in uniform who are willing to put their lives on the line for our country.
When I was defense secretary, the toughest duty I had was to deploy our forces into harm’s way. It was essential that they had all of the support and weapons they needed to accomplish the mission. But in addition, they must have the latest intelligence on the enemy they are fighting so they are prepared for the worst consequences. This is not about who did or did not brief the president. It is about life and death.
It is tough enough to look parents in the eye after their loved one has been killed in action knowing that you tried to do everything you could to protect them in battle. But to look at grieving parents knowing that the Russians were putting a price on the heads of their loved ones and that nothing was done about it is both shameful and disgraceful.
For the sake of those who lost their lives because of Russian bounties, someone must be held responsible.
If the president was not briefed as he should have been about this critical intelligence, then his staff must be held accountable.
If the National Security Council did meet on this intelligence in March and failed to bring options for action to the president, then the national security adviser needs to be held accountable.
If the intelligence was in the PDB — the president’s daily intelligence briefing — and the president ignored it or failed to even read it, then he should be held accountable.
If the intelligence was in the PDB and those in the chain of command — the defense secretary, secretary of state, vice president and others — failed to read or have it pointed out by their respective briefers, then they, too, should be held accountable.
If the leadership in Congress was not briefed on this intelligence, then the director of national intelligence and the director of the CIA should be held accountable.
Incompetence is not an excuse when it comes to the lives of our troops. There is no tweet or foreign policy rationale that can justify what the Russians are doing. Those in positions of power cannot hide behind bureaucratic screw-ups or allegations of politics or fake news. If a military commander lost the lives of men and women under his or her command because he or she failed to act, that commander would face a court-martial. Leadership is not about excuses; it is about responsibility.
The president seems to enjoy the symbols and displays of military power, particularly on the Fourth of July. But even he should understand that the real strength of our military is not in our fancy weapons or ships or planes or technology. It is the men and women who are willing to fight and die for our country and their patriotic families who support their courage and sacrifice who represent the real strength of America.
Defending these brave troops from our enemies is a hell of a lot more important than a Fourth of July flyover.
The president needs to understand that the best way to honor those who serve this nation is to make clear that what the Russians are doing with their bounties will not be tolerated and that the United States will do everything necessary to protect the lives of our fighting men and women. That would be the right answer, Mr. President.