U.S. President Donald Trump has denied reports that he was briefed by American intelligence officials about an alleged Russian operation offering bounties for the killing of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
A series of reports — starting with the New York Times on Friday, the Washington Post on Saturday, and the Associated Press on Monday — builds a compelling picture that U.S. intelligence were confident in the assessment that Russian intelligence operatives had offered bounties to Afghan militants for the killing of Americans and coalition forces.
The big question appears to be whether, what and when the president knew.
The New York Times report stated that the intelligence finding was briefed to Trump and was discussed by the National Security Council in an interagency meeting in late March.
On Saturday, the Washington Post reported Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe denying that Trump had been briefed: Ratcliffe “confirmed that neither the President nor the Vice President were ever briefed on any intelligence” related to a Russian bounty, and that all news reports “about an alleged briefing are inaccurate.”
Late on Sunday, Trump tweeted: “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP. Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks, wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!
(Note: Vice President Mike Pence was not mentioned in either the New York Times story or the Washington Post report; and the New York Times story was published by the politics desk, not the books section).
On Monday, the Associated Press reported that intelligence officials confirmed that the president had been briefed on the issue earlier this year. The AP went further and reported that intelligence officials had been investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three U.S. Marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they traveled back to Bagram, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the AP reported, “in early 2020 members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known to the public as SEAL Team Six, raided a Taliban outpost and recovered roughly $500,000. The recovered funds further solidified the suspicions of the American intelligence community that the Russians had offered money to Taliban militants and linked associations.”
U.S. intelligence officials have long alleged that Russia was covertly supporting the Taliban, but the latest reports take Russian meddling in Afghanistan to a new, more direct, level. The reported operation also touches on a sensitive nerve: Trump’s relationship with Russia.
According to the New York Times, the arm of the Russian military intelligence agency (known as the GRU) which was behind the operation was Unit 29155. Unit 29155 has been implicated in a series of operations in the West, including the March 2018 poisoning of defected GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England. The GRU is also believed to be behind the 2016 hacking of Democratic Party servers, which ultimately led to the leak of damaging emails by Wikileaks.
While U.S. intelligence has increasingly viewed Russia as an adversary, Trump has repeatedly embraced the country and its leader, President Vladimir Putin. This tension seems to have complicated administration efforts to discuss and respond to the intelligence reports.
The White House, the Russians, and the Taliban have all denied the reports, which come at a difficult time for Trump, who is seeking reelection amid a pandemic his government has not managed particularly well and unrest in the United States over racism and police brutality.
In tweeting the New York Times story on Sunday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said: “Donald Trump’s entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale. It’s a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation, to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told ABC’s “This Week” she hadn’t been informed about the reported bounties and requested a report to Congress on the matter.
“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score, denies being briefed. Whether he is or not, his administration knows and our allies — some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan had been briefed and accept this report,” she said.
Other members of congress, including Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican, called on the White House to clarify who knew what, when.
With reporting from the Associated Press.