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Ex-CIA chief says US may need to respond with ‘bold’ action if Russian bounties prove true

Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta listens to a question while testifying before a joint session of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee for Veterans Affairs at the Rayburn building in Washington, D.C., July 25, 2012. (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The former head of the CIA said the United States may need to respond with “bold” action against Russia, including imposing harder-hitting sanctions, should a report prove true that Moscow offered Taliban-linked militants money to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and secretary of defense during the administration of President Barack Obama, told a congressional hearing on July 10 that such an action by Russia would cross a line and require a response that could include diplomatic isolation, sanctions, and, “if necessary,” military force.

Panetta said Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to carry out aggressive actions around the world because the United States has failed to take a tough stance against him and his nation in the past.

“I think we may have to do something bold in order to get Putin’s attention. I think, right now, Putin does not really believe that the United States is going to respond in a way that is going to really undermine Russia and undermine him,” he told a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The hearing was at least the third this week in the Democratic-controlled House on the topic of whether Russia paid Taliban militants to target U.S. soldiers and how the United States should respond.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on July 9 with four military and foreign policy experts on how to respond to Russia, while the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the same day with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley.

The issue has become a hot, partisan topic since The New York Times first reported at the end of June that President Donald Trump was briefed on the bounty but did nothing in response.

The White House has said Trump, a Republican who is seeking reelection in November, was not briefed on the intelligence because it was unverified.

Should the intelligence report prove accurate, Panetta said the Trump administration should consider imposing the type of hard-hitting sanctions on Russia that it imposed on Iran.

Those punishing sanctions have cut into Iran’s economy, including its oil industry, as it seeks to stop its suspected nuclear-weapons program. Iran’s oil production has tumbled, starving the government of cash.

Russia is among the world’s top three oil producers and sanctions on its energy industry could potentially impact global supply and prices.

“If we did [that to Russia], it would send a clear signal to Putin that we are serious about making sure they stop the aggression that they have been involved in,” he told the hearing.

Panetta pointed out that Russia has forcibly annexed Crimea, carried out suspected assassinations in Europe, and interfered in U.S. elections, among other aggressive actions.

Panetta said the United States needs to strengthen NATO and build new alliances, including in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America to promote stability and counter the influence of Russia and China.

Moscow and Beijing “can’t form alliances. They fear alliances. So our ability to develop and maintain alliances is one of our best weapons against those adversaries,” he said.

Panetta criticized Trump’s plans to withdraw nearly 10,000 U.S. military personnel from Germany, saying it would send a “message of weakness” to Russia.

“This is the wrong time to be moving forces out of Europe,” he told the hearing.

Panetta, who served in the House of Representatives from 1977 until 1993, said he is concerned about the growing divide between Republicans and Democrats in Congress on such issues, saying it plays into Putin’s hands.

“We have got to restore a sense of bipartisanship when it comes to our national security interests. Right now, Putin looks at the United States and looks at the polarization and the partisanship and the divide that has taken place in our country and has seen that as weakness,” he said.

Panetta’s son, Jimmy Panetta, is a Democratic member of the House, representing California.