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President Donald Trump has had very little to say about reports Russia was paying a bounty to the Taliban to kill U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, other than that he was never briefed on the issue. White House officials do not deny that the intelligence reached the Oval Office, but say it was not confirmed and so was not discussed directly with the president.
Some say the episode points to a debilitating lack of U.S. consensus over Russia, allowing its longtime ideological and geopolitical adversary to exploit those divisions to achieve its goals. Others say a consensus is, in fact, in place across the U.S. government – everywhere but at the very top.
The absence of White House action on the suspected bounty program or even engagement on it with Russia at any level is troubling to some. Katrina Mulligan, a former official in the National Security Council, questions why such explosive information about Russian activity would have been kept from the president.
A lack of consensus across intelligence agencies “was never a reason to not tell the president something of this magnitude,” she says. “I really wonder about what motivated people [in the White House] not to prioritize this with the president.”
In early May a classified CIA update for officers across U.S. intelligence agencies and others with security clearance reportedly cited evidence of a Russian program suspected of paying Taliban-linked militias to kill American and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
The military and intelligence agencies were investigating whether the bounty program might have played a part in an April 2019 roadside bombing near Bagram Air Base in which three Marine reservists were killed. The United States had evidence – in the form of a half-million dollars in cash found in a Seal Team 6 raid of a Taliban hideout – that bounties had already been paid.
And intelligence from captured Taliban fighters spurred the U.S. to investigate a funding channel connecting money handlers in Afghanistan with sources in Russia.
Information on the alleged Russian bounty program had already been included in a President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, in late February, according to reporting this week in The New York Times.
But the inclusion of Russia’s bounty plan more than two months later in the CIA update, called the Wire, is raising questions among some former intelligence officers and national security experts: Was it just bureaucratic issues that caused the delay? Did new and better sourcing materialize over those two months to warrant the broader dissemination?
And why was the CIA, which compiles the Wire, acting at that point to disseminate something of such gravity to a broader audience?
Question of consensus
Moreover, the wider dissemination of information on the bounty program along with the hints of sharp differences over it between the Trump administration and parts of the intelligence community reflect what some say is a debilitating lack of consensus in the U.S. government on Russia.
As the U.S. squabbles over how to handle relations with America’s longtime ideological and geopolitical adversary, these voices caution, Vladimir Putin is cannily exploiting the divisions to further his goals vis-a-vis the U.S. Those include weakening America’s democratic system and exacerbating social divisions. For Mr. Putin, who aims to reassert Russia as a global power, damaging U.S. standing in and commitment to regions where American and Russian interests collide – Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Afghanistan – remains a top priority.
But others say that a broad consensus on Russia that goes back to the Cold War is, in fact, still in place – everywhere but at the very top.
“There is actually a fairly large consensus about the challenge Russia poses and the way the U.S. should respond, and I would say that consensus stretches from the intelligence community and many national security officials to much of Congress,” says Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia in the National Intelligence Council.
“And then there’s a huge gap,” she adds, “between that consensus and the person at the very top.”
It is that gap, a feature of President Donald Trump’s tenure from the beginning – the intelligence community finding substantial evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and the president dismissing such conclusions as a “hoax” – that appears to be on display once again in the uproar over the suspected Russian bounty program.
Mr. Trump has had very little to say about the Russian plan, other than that he was never briefed on the issue. White House officials do not deny that the intelligence reached the Oval Office, but say it was not confirmed and so was not discussed directly with the president.
A pattern concerning Russia
Still, the absence of White House action on the suspected bounty program or even engagement on it with Russia at any level confirms what some see as a pattern of unwillingness to take to the president any evidence of nefarious Russian activity toward the U.S.
“I do not see that this story is so much about intelligence as it is really about the administration failing to deal with Russia offering to pay the Taliban to kill U.S. troops,” says Katrina Mulligan, a former official in the National Security Council and Office of the Director of National Intelligence who served under both the Obama and Trump administrations.
For Ms. Mulligan, that failure reflects in part the “dysfunction” in the White House national security apparatus, which she notes has been led by six national security advisers and four directors of national intelligence over Mr. Trump’s tenure.
But she also questions why such explosive information about Russian activity, even if not fully confirmed, would have been kept from the president. Noting that in her time in government a lack of consensus across intelligence agencies “was never a reason to not tell the president something of this magnitude,” she says, “I really wonder about what motivated people [in the White House] not to prioritize this with the president.”
Others who have been directly involved in preparing the PDB agree, finding it unfathomable that such information involving force protection and vulnerability would not have reached the commander-in-chief.
“This [intelligence] reporting is so inflammatory and so egregious, it is incomprehensible to me that senior people wouldn’t bring this to the attention of the president,” says Robert Cardillo, a former deputy director of National Intelligence for Intelligence Integration and a PDB briefer to President Obama.
“It’s even more incomprehensible,” he adds, “that no action would have been taken in response.”
Some of the House Republicans who were invited to the White House Monday to be briefed on the Russian bounty program intelligence suggested they were not fully satisfied with the explanations they received. They also hinted at a higher degree of alarm over Russian activities, specifically in Afghanistan, than what they have seen emanating from the administration.
“It has been clear for some time that Russia does not wish us well in Afghanistan,” two of those Republicans – Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Mac Thornberry of Texas – said in a joint statement following the briefing. “We believe it is important to vigorously pursue any information related to Russia or any other country targeting our forces.”
The two prominent hawks said they “remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted U.S. forces,” and said they expect the administration to promptly provide Congress with additional information on the alleged Russian program.
Trump-Putin phone calls
Some Democrats and national security analysts more critical of the administration note that over recent months during which the White House has known about the suspected Russian bounty plan, President Trump has not only refrained from challenging Russia over its activities but has gone out of his way in the other direction. He is known to have had at least four phone conversations with Mr. Putin since late February.
Over that time Mr. Trump has pushed (ultimately unsuccessfully) for the G7 group of most advanced economies to readmit Russia to the elite club. He has also taken everyone by surprise, including Germany, by announcing an imminent reduction in U.S. troops stationed in Germany.
Russia has said very little about the suspected bounty program, but officials have seized on the fact that the U.S. never raised it with them to cast the reporting’s veracity in doubt. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Mr. Putin, told NBC News Monday that not only were the reports incorrect, but that “none of the American representatives have ever raised this question” with their Russian counterparts.
The White House is doubling down on the fact that there was not unanimity on the bounty program’s existence across intelligence agencies to explain why it was not taken up directly with the president.
“There was not a consensus among the intelligence community,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Monday. “And, in fact, there were dissenting opinions within the intelligence community, and it would not be elevated to the president until it was verified.”
This left Representative Thornberry stupefied and irate that something “with even a hint of veracity” concerning the security of U.S. troops would not be taken to the president.
Indeed former officials with experience in highest-level intelligence briefings say “dissenting opinions” would not be a reason to keep information from the president, though the existence of varying assessments would be shared.
“Dissent has a proud tradition in the intelligence community, and it is protected,” says Mr. Cardillo. If he were presenting the president with intelligence that another agency wanted to dissent from, that dissent would be presented to the president, he says.
“The president’s staff has to make decisions with or without perfect information,” says Ms. Mulligan. Waiting for “consensus,” particularly when the lives of U.S. service members are involved, she adds, is not an option.