A bombshell report published by The New York Times Friday alleges that Russia paid dollar bounties to the Taliban in Afghanistan to kill U.S troops. Obscured by an extremely bungled White House press response, there are at least three serious flaws with the reporting.
The article alleges that GRU, a top-secret unit of Russian military intelligence, offered the bounty in payment for every U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan, and that at least one member of the U.S. military was alleged to have been killed in exchange for the bounties. According to the paper, U.S. intelligence concluded months ago that the Russian unit involved in the bounties was also linked to poisonings, assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe. The Times reports that United States intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan came to this conclusion about Russian bounties some time in 2019.
According to the anonymous sources that spoke with the paper’s reporters, the White House and President Trump were briefed on a range of potential responses to Moscow’s provocations, including sanctions, but the White House had authorized no further action.
Immediately after the news broke Friday, the Trump administration denied the report—or rather, they denied that the President was briefed, depending on which of the frenetic, contradictory White House responses you read.
Traditionally, the President of the United States receives unconfirmed, and sometimes even raw intelligence, in the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB. Trump notoriously does not read his PDB, according to reports.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said in a statement Saturday night that neither Trump nor Vice President Pence “were ever briefed on any intelligence alleged by the New York Times in its reporting yesterday.”
On Sunday night, Trump tweeted that not only was he not told about the alleged intelligence, but that it was not credible.“Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP” Pence, Trump wrote Sunday night on Twitter.
Ousted National Security Advisor John Bolton said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that Trump was probably claiming ignorance in order to justify his administration’s lack of response.
“He can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it,” said Bolton.
Bolton is one of the only sources named in the New York Times article. Currently on a book tour, Bolton has said that he witnessed foreign policy malfeasance by Trump that dwarfs the Ukraine scandal that was the subject of the House impeachment hearings. But Bolton’s credibility has been called into question since he declined to appear before the House committee.
The explanations for what exactly happened, and who was briefed, continued to shift Monday.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany followed Trump’s blanket denial with a statement that the intelligence concerning Russian bounty information was “unconfirmed.” She didn’t say the intelligence wasn’t credible, like Trump had said the day before, only that there was “no consensus” and that the “veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated,” which happens to almost completely match the Sunday night statement from the White House’s National Security Council.
Instead of saying that the sources for the Russian bounty story were not credible and the story was false, or likely false, McEnany then said that Trump had “not been briefed on the matter.”
“He was not personally briefed on the matter,” she said. “That is all I can share with you today.”
It’s difficult to see how the White House thought McEnany’s statement would help, and a bungled press response like this is communications malpractice, according to sources who spoke to The American Conservative.
Let’s take a deeper dive into some of the problems with the reporting here:
1. Anonymous U.S. and Taliban sources?
The Times article repeatedly cites unnamed “American intelligence officials.” The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal articles “confirming” the original Times story merely restate the allegations of the anonymous officials, along with caveats like “if true” or “if confirmed.”
Furthermore, the unnamed intelligence sources who spoke with the Times say that their assessment is based “on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals.”
That’s a red flag, said John Kiriakou, a former analyst and case officer for the CIA who led the team that captured senior al-Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in 2002.
“When you capture a prisoner, and you’re interrogating him, the prisoner is going to tell you what he thinks you want to hear,” he said in an interview with The American Conservative. “There’s no evidence here, there’s no proof.”
“Who can forget how ‘successful’ interrogators can be in getting desired answers?” writes Ray McGovern, who served as a CIA analyst for 27 years. Under the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” Khalid Sheik Mohammed famously made at least 31 confessions, many of which were completely false.
Kiriakou believes that the sources behind the report hold important clues on how the government viewed its credibility.
“We don’t know who the source is for this. We don’t know if they’ve been vetted, polygraphed; were they a walk-in; were they a captured prisoner?”
If the sources were suspect, as they appear to be here, then Trump would not have been briefed on this at all.
With this story, it’s important to start at the “intelligence collection,” said Kiriakou. “This information… appeared in the [CIA World Intelligence Review] Wire, which goes to hundreds of people inside the government, mostly at the State Department and the Pentagon. The most sensitive information isn’t put in the Wire; it goes only in the PDB.”
“If this was from a single source intelligence, it wouldn’t have been briefed to Trump. It’s not vetted, and it’s not important enough. If you caught a Russian who said this, for example, that would make it important enough. But some Taliban detainees saying it to an interrogator, that does not rise to the threshold.”
2. What purpose would bounties serve?
Everyone and their mother knows Trump wants to pull the troops out of Afghanistan, said Kiriakou.
“He ran on it and he has said it hundreds of times,” he said. “So why would the Russians bother putting a bounty on U.S. troops if we’re about to leave Afghanistan shortly anyway?”
That’s leaving aside Russia’s own experience with the futility of Afghanistan campaigns, learned during its grueling 9-year war there in the 1980s.
If this bounty campaign is real, it would not appear to be very effective, as only eight U.S. military members were killed in Afghanistan in 2020. The New York Times could not verify that even one U.S. military member was killed due to an alleged Russian bounty.
The Taliban denies it accepted bounties from Russian intelligence.
“These kinds of deals with the Russian intelligence agency are baseless—our target killings and assassinations were ongoing in years before, and we did it on our own resources,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, told The New York Times. “That changed after our deal with the Americans, and their lives are secure and we don’t attack them.”
The Russian Embassy in the United States called the reporting “fake news.”
While the Russians are ruthless, “it’s hard to fathom what their motivations could be” here, said Paul Pillar, an academic and 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, in an interview with The American Conservative. “What would they be retaliating for? Some use of force in Syria recently? I don’t know. I can’t string together a particular sequence that makes sense at this time. I’m not saying that to cast doubt on reports the Russians were doing this sort of thing.”
3. Why is this story being leaked now?
According to U.S. officials quoted by the AP, top officials in the White House “were aware of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans” in early 2019. So why is this story just coming out now?
This story is “WMD [all over] again,” said McGovern, who in the 1980s chaired National Intelligence Estimates and prepared the President’s Daily Brief. He believes the stories seek to preempt DOJ findings on the origins of the Russiagate probe.
The NYT story serves to bolster the narrative that Trump sides with Russia, and against our intelligence community estimates and our own soldiers lives.
The stories “are likely to remain indelible in the minds of credulous Americans—which seems to have been the main objective,” writes McGovern. “There [Trump] goes again—not believing our ‘intelligence community; siding, rather, with Putin.'”
“I don’t believe this story… and I think it was leaked to embarrass the President,” said Kiriakou. “Trump is on the ropes in the polls; Biden is ahead in all the battleground states.”
If these anonymous sources had spoken up during the impeachment hearings, their statements could have changed history.
But the timing here, “kicking a man when he is down, is extremely like the Washington establishment. A leaked story like this now, embarrasses and weakens Trump,” he said. “It was obvious that Trump would blow the media response, which he did.”
The bungled media response and resulting negative press could also lead Trump to contemplate harsher steps towards Russia in order to prove that he is “tough,” which may have motivated the leakers.
It’s certainly a policy goal with which Bolton, one of the only named sources in the New York Times piece, wholeheartedly approves.