July 1, 2020

Russia-Taliban Bounties

Last Friday, The New York Times reported that “American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops.” New York Times

On Sunday, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or [the Vice President].” Twitter

See past issues

From the Left

The left is skeptical that Trump was not aware of the claims and argues that there should have been a more forceful response.

“Trump’s belief that Washington can work productively with the Kremlin in confronting global challenges is not based on any credible evidence. In every suggested arena of cooperation, Moscow actively cultivates conflicts to undermine Western interests. It supports regimes and terrorist groups across the Middle East that are sworn enemies of the U.S., including in Afghanistan. It weakens Europe’s energy security and pursues supply monopolies. It threatens NATO allies along the eastern flank and nurtures armed conflicts in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan…

“Trump has remained largely silent despite a series of Russian provocations against U.S. forces… The provocations have included frequent Russian overflights of U.S. Navy ships, erratic movements by Russian surveillance ships off the U.S. coast and dangerous navy encounters precipitated by Russian vessels in several locations… It seems that even the targeted killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan will not embolden Trump to finally condemn Putin’s actions and ambitions.”
Janusz Bugajski, The Hill

“As a former national security adviser, I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that no one told Mr. Trump about this intelligence… White House officials claim that it would be improper to inform the president of such information until it is fully verified and options for the U.S. response had been prepared. Yet, the administration reportedly informed the British government, and the National Security Council convened an interagency meeting in March to discuss the intelligence and its implications… If Mr. Trump was told about Russian actions, why did he not respond? If he was not told, why not?”
Susan E. Rice, New York Times

“There are indicators that officials had at [least] some degree of confidence in the intelligence. A US official with knowledge of the matter confirmed to CNN that some measures were taken to protect US troops in light of the intelligence… Plus, according to the Times' reporting, the intel was shared with the UK, implying a level of relative confidence in its veracity. It does not appear that reliability was a limiting factor here. Even if the intel was still being vetted, there were people who thought it was reliable enough to respond to in various ways. Based on my four years at the White House, that typically warrants at least a mention to the President.”
Samantha Vinograd, CNN

“There doesn’t need to be total agreement among every agency for an intelligence assessment to make it to the president’s desk; for one thing, it’s possible that not every agency has seen the underlying evidence (e.g., interrogation tapes and financial records) and been able to make an independent judgment…

“If the intelligence community has credible evidence about something so politically and strategically explosive, the president needs to know in order to start thinking about how to potentially respond. At the very least, he’d be expected to try to figure out just how likely it is that the plot is real — asking questions about the sourcing, for example, and how seriously he needs to take it… [Moreover it] is extremely hard to believe [that]… all of the intelligence officials saying otherwise are lying to the press.”
Zack Beauchamp, Vox

“While Americans are largely focused on the bounties on U.S. troops, the underlying intelligence assessment allegedly also speaks of bounties placed on British troops and other coalition allies. The fact that Trump tried to reward Russia with an invitation to a ‘G7-plus’ summit rankled close allies in May, particularly Canada and Britain. Now we know one reason. Think about how that played out in foreign capitals, when those governments were likely aware of the Russian bounty program. British troops were being targeted by militias on the Kremlin’s payroll and Trump wanted to give Putin a special treat as a token of gratitude?”
Brian Klaas, Washington Post

Former defense secretary and CIA director Leon E. Panetta writes, “It is tough enough to look parents in the eye after their loved one has been killed in action knowing that you tried to do everything you could to protect them in battle. But to look at grieving parents knowing that the Russians were putting a price on the heads of their loved ones and that nothing was done about it is both shameful and disgraceful

“If the intelligence was in the PDB and those in the chain of command — the defense secretary, secretary of state, vice president and others — failed to read or have it pointed out by their respective briefers, then they, too, should be held accountable. If the leadership in Congress was not briefed on this intelligence, then the director of national intelligence and the director of the CIA should be held accountable. Incompetence is not an excuse when it comes to the lives of our troops.”
Leon E. Panetta, Washington Post

From the Right

The right is generally skeptical of the claims and argues that Trump has been tougher on Russia than the previous administration.

The right is generally skeptical of the claims and argues that Trump has been tougher on Russia than the previous administration.

“Much of the case for the Iraq War was based on the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction…

“The intelligence failure became a widespread media failure when reporters uncritically regurgitated the weapons of mass destruction claims from their intelligence community sources. Academics, pundits, and journalists themselves have decried the media’s performance in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The New York Times and Washington Post even published their regrets about their own coverage, which frequently took the intelligence community’s claims at face value…

“[This is] important history to remember as you watch nearly the entire corporate media establishment run wild with claims from completely anonymous sources in the intelligence community this week… If the [Iraq WMD] information was presented as airtight and used to launch a protracted war, this intelligence seems to be in only the earliest stages of analysis and heavily in dispute. So why is it being leaked (when such leaks are a criminal offense)? And why are the media so anxious to use this sketchy information?”
Mollie Hemingway, The Federalist

Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) writes, “We don’t know who’s telling the truth, and now we maybe never will. If Russia was putting bounties on American troops’ heads, they are shredding every piece of evidence that it happened as we speak. All because President Trump’s breathless critics in the media decided to insert themselves and interrupt the intelligence community’s efforts

“Now the intelligence community’s hands are tied. They can’t follow up on this intelligence and learn more about the Russian operation in Afghanistan, which leaves our troops stationed there in danger. Worse, everyone from National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien to Central Intelligence Agency Gina Haspel is now having to turn their entire attention into explaining the nuances of our national security processes to the media.”
Jim Banks, Fox News

Some note that “The Kremlin’s strategic objective is to bleed the U.S. of life, prestige, and treasure, and ultimately pressure us out of Afghanistan. Putin also wishes to detach the Afghan government from Western interests. In turn, it's important to note that the GRU cash-for-killings concern is just one slice of a big Russian intelligence cake in Afghanistan. Alongside its apparent engaging of the Taliban to kill American and coalition soldiers, the GRU has supported the group with arms, money, and intelligence material to enable its attacks and improve its operational security…

“Indeed, the GRU’s toxic penchant for murder, mayhem, and exceptionally aggressive and risky operations means that its section of the daily brief could alone be ten pages long. Thus, the daily brief contains only that which the president really needs to know or has asked to know more about… Unless a national security issue is urgent and requires specific attention, [the President] doesn’t need to be told all the specifics, and often he won't be.”
Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner

“Mr. Trump’s continuing personal solicitousness toward Mr. Putin is strange bordering on the bizarre. It’s accomplished nothing except damage his own political standing. But then Mr. Trump has toughened sanctions against Russia, has sent Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine that Obama-Biden refused to send, has withdrawn from two arms deals Russia is violating, and has tried to stop Nord Stream 2. He’s been far tougher on Russia than Obama-Biden ever was.”
Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal

“We’re all on board for getting tough with Russia for the long haul, right, guys? You really mean it this time, and this isn’t just a useful tool to use against President Trump, right? If there’s a Biden administration, we’re not going to see another ‘reset button’ ceremony or the ‘the 1980s called to ask for their foreign policy back,’ right? There will be no more dismissing of the idea of Russia being a top geopolitical foe as a ‘preposterous notion,’ right? The Democratic Party won’t tweet out statements from the Russian president to attack a GOP opponent, right?...

“You’ll understand if some Russia hawks are skeptical. From late 2003 to 2008, the United States witnessed an impassioned, outraged, highly motivated anti-war movement . . . that pretty much faded out after Barack Obama was elected… It would be nice to have a broad, bipartisan coalition supporting policies that are tough on Putin and the Russian government until it changes its behavior. But one can’t help but suspect that the anti-Russian sentiment among Democrats is mostly an anti-Trump sentiment — and that if Trump departs the political scene, this sentiment will depart with him.”
Jim Geraghty, National Review

A military perspective

Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis writes, “Providing arms and training to allies and occasionally to surrogates is common international behavior — the U.S. does so for North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and many other entities. But offering ‘bounties’ for killing individual soldiers is shocking. It is especially dangerous when directed from the intelligence service of a nuclear-armed nation to the armed forces of a strategic opponent

“If the bounty reports are proved accurate, the Trump administration should strongly consider expelling the Russian ambassador to the U.S. and his entire intelligence team, along with consul generals. This would likely set off diplomatic retaliation by Russia, but that is a price we should be willing to pay. Similarly, no senior U.S. diplomats or military officers should meet with their Russian counterparts, including Trump meeting or talking with President Vladimir Putin.”
James Stavridis, Bloomberg

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