The shocking report that a Russian military intelligence unit offered rewards to Taliban-linked militants for targeted attacks on coalition forces—including U.S. troops—in Afghanistan is apparently intelligence President Donald Trump has known and done nothing about for months, sources say. The New York Times reported that American intelligence officials came to the conclusion “months ago” that “islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them” collected “some bounty money” as a reward for successful attacks last year.
Officials told the Times that Trump was briefed on the incendiary intelligence and that the White House’s National Security Council discussed the situation in late March, with officials developing possible responses such as “a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions.” But the president has yet to act on the problem—something that he claimed Sunday to know nothing about. “Nobody briefed or told me, @VP Pence, or Chief of Staff @MarkMeadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an ‘anonymous source’ by the Fake News @nytimes,” Trump wrote on Twitter, adding “there have not been many attacks on us” and that “nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration.”
The Times notes Trump’s approach to Russia and Vladimir Putin-related issues to have “come under particular scrutiny” in part because Moscow’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election were in the president’s favor, with the special counsel investigation finding “that the Trump campaign welcomed Russia’s intervention and expected to benefit from it.” The president has publicly challenged this investigation, calling it a “witch hunt” and questioning the motives of his own intelligence agency. At a summit in 2018, he appeared to believe Putin’s denial of the election hacking that American intelligence officers broadly agreed the Kremlin was responsible for. And while feigning ignorance on Sunday, Trump dismissed the Times’ report on the Russian bounty intelligence as “probably just another phony Times hit job, just like their failed Russia Hoax.”
Conservative commentator David Frum noted that the story being reported by the Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal “doesn’t mean it’s certainly true.” What it does mean, Frum wrote on Twitter, is that “very credible people in [the] U.S. intelligence service are angry and alarmed. Angry and alarmed enough to provide evidence to three leading media sources.” In addition to Trump’s denial, Frum cited former Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell’s claim that he never “heard” of the bounties and that of John Ratcliffe, the office’s current director, who tweeted that he had never “briefed” the president. But, he added, “it’s also not impossible” for these three officials to be “telling a version of the truth,” noting the possibility that “the information was withheld from Trump by briefers who have learned not to upset him”—given previous reports of Trump staff keeping Russia-related things from the president so as not to piss him off—as well as “that Grenell during his tenure at ODNI was simply not doing the work.” Frum remarked it to be “noteworthy” that no denials have come from the Pentagon, the C.I.A., or the National Security Council, all of which the Times said declined to comment.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid denied the insurgents to have “any such relations with any intelligence agency,” and told the Times that “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. That changed after our deal with the Americans, and their lives are secure and we don’t attack them.” Meanwhile, Putin’s press secretary said that the Kremlin would respond to the accusations “if someone makes them” but had not been made aware of such claims.
Such findings, the Times notes, would be “a significant and provocative escalation” in Russian support for the Taliban—something that American and Afghan officials have raised—as well as an intensification of “Russia’s so-called hybrid war against the United States, a strategy of destabilizing adversaries through a combination of such tactics as cyberattacks, the spread of fake news and covert and deniable military operations.” The intelligence would also mark the first known instance of the Russian spy unit orchestrating attacks on Western troops.
Republicans are demanding answers. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who Axios notes to be the highest-ranking GOP figure in Congress to question the White House on the incendiary findings, called out the administration in a Twitter post on Sunday. “If reporting about Russian bounties on US forces is true, the White House must explain:
1. Why weren’t the president or vice president briefed? Was the info in the PDB?
2. Who did know and when?
3. What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?”
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