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Esper And Milley Testify On Military's Role In Handling Recent Protests


The House Armed Services Committee had a host of questions today for Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. The questions covered what the role was of the National Guard during recent protests, and they covered reports of Russia paying bounties for the Taliban to kill Americans. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us with details. Hey, Tom.


CHANG: All right. So let's start the National Guard. I mean, there have been lingering questions over how they were used on June 1 in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. What did Esper and Milley say about the role of the Guard that day?

BOWMAN: Well, they defended the role of the National Guard, saying Guard troops were there to support civilian law enforcement and were in what they called a static position. They didn't take part in clearing the park of peaceful protesters. Guard troops, they said, are used to dealing with any civil unrest, supporting local authorities on a variety of - for a variety of reasons. And they said it's a better alternative than using active-duty forces as President Trump had threatened.

CHANG: And is it clear who was actually calling the shots that day?

BOWMAN: You know, it's not clear, Ailsa, and that's really surprising. Neither Esper nor Milley knew who gave the order to clear the park. But again, the Guard was working in support of civil authorities, Justice Department as well as the park police, who - apparently someone within those organizations gave the order. Now, the Pentagon is doing what it calls an after action report on the Guard's role in D.C. and also elsewhere around the country, including training and equipment. Now, one issue in D.C. was, Ailsa, a guard helicopter flew low over protesters, and the wash from the blades swept them up in debris, even tore some limbs from trees. And the report is expected to determine why that happened.

CHANG: OK. Well, the other story I want to ask you about is reports of a bounty program in Afghanistan, where Russia was reportedly offering up cash sums to Taliban fighters to kill Americans. What do we know about this so far?

BOWMAN: Well, it did come up. Both Esper and Milley said the Pentagon has not corroborated reports of the bounty program from the intelligence community, principally the CIA. The Pentagon is still looking into that, and they see no evidence that any Americans were killed as a result of this supposed program. But General Milley pointed out - and he's done multiple tours in Afghanistan - that it's long been known that Russia was aiding the Taliban with training and equipment or, as he put it, meddling since 2013 or so. And Ailsa, this is something I saw on the ground myself when I was in Helmand Province a few years back with my producer Monika Evstatieva.

The other thing is Milley did go on to say the American troops there are at the highest level of force protection. And he said there's not much more they can do at the ground level. This issue of Russian bounties is more something for top political leaders. Let's listen.


MARK MILLEY: The issue is higher than that. The issue is at the strategic level. What should or could we be doing at the strategic level? Is there diplomatic and informational and economic of the sanctions, of the demarches (ph)? Are there phone calls? Are there pressure, those sorts of things? And I can tell you that some of that is done. Are we doing as much as we could or should? Perhaps not.

CHANG: Interesting. He's saying that we probably are not doing as much as we could or should. So is that language actually being echoed by the White House at the moment?

BOWMAN: Absolutely not. The White House criticized The New York Times, which broke the story about the supposed bounties. They criticize them for revealing classified information. And the president just dismissed the whole story as a hoax. And he said it was only to damage me and the Republican Party. But the Pentagon, again, is looking into this, taking it very seriously. And clearly, as you just heard, General Milley was much more forceful on Russia than anything we've heard recently from the White House. And if it's true, these bounties, Milley said he would be an outraged general.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tom Bowman. Thank you so much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.