FACT-CHECK: A closer look at Tillis’ response to Russian bounty reports

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The campaign for Cal Cunningham’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate is airing a television ad that’s critical of current Sen. Thom Tillis’ response to reports of bounties offered by Russia to Taliban militants for killing Americans.

Cunningham, a Democrat, faces Tillis, the Republican incumbent, in the general election in November.

CBS 17 took a closer look at one of the claims in the ad as part of our political pledge to test the factual accuracy of public communications offered by candidates, political action committees or partisan groups.

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THE CLAIM: One line in the 30-second ad produced by Cunningham’s campaign says Tillis “fails to act while the Russians pay bounties for dead Americans,” adding that it means “something is deeply wrong in Washington.”

THE FACTS: The New York Times, citing unnamed sources, reported in June that Russia may have paid militants linked to the Taliban to kill coalition forces in Afghanistan, including American troops, and that the White House to that point had not authorized any responses.

CBS 17 News asked the Tillis re-election campaign for its response to the claim in Cunningham’s ad, and spokesman Andrew Romeo said the senator — a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — received intelligence on the issue during a classified briefing with military leaders.

“And what he has called for is the strongest non-military action the United States can take against Russia in response,” Romeo said.

That action, Romeo said, would be to treat Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.

That falls in line with what Tillis posted to Twitter three days after the New York Times’ initial story. The senator posted that “if intelligence reports are verified that Russia or any other country is placing bounties on American troops, then they need to be treated as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

The top U.S. general for the Middle East called the intelligence “worrisome” in July but said he is not convinced that any bounties resulted in deaths by U.S. military members.

And testifying before a House committee in July, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley said that intelligence agencies had not corroborated that information and that they don’t believe it can be tied to any attacks in Afghanistan resulting in American casualties.

The investigation is still going on, and Milley said the U.S. will take action if the intelligence is proven correct.

Some of Tillis’ colleagues in the Senate have called for even more action.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, re-introduced a bill in April 2019 that would require the secretary of state to “determine whether the Russian Federation should be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism” and whether armed entities sponsored by Russian in Ukraine should be designated foreign terrorist organizations. The bill, S.1189, has only one co-sponsor: Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, called on Congress to investigate and said families in his state are “livid” about the reports.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, wrote a letter to Esper on July 9 asking him to publicly disclose the findings of all investigations into the allegations.

As for Cunningham, the challenger has called for Senate hearings and said Russia should not be admitted into the international Group of Seven organization while the issue is being investigated.

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