Russian Bounty Intel Sparks Confusion Over How President Is Briefed

Jul 1, 2020
Originally published on July 9, 2020 6:58 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much did the president know of reports that Russia offered bounties on U.S. troops? And how much should he have known? Both questions have become part of the debate over the reported program in Afghanistan. News reports have said the president was briefed long before the information became public. President Trump denied that, and the White House has said the intelligence information was not fully confirmed. Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice writes this morning in The New York Times that that doesn't matter. If she had known, she writes, she would have told the president, and people in any previous administration would have done the same.

So how does the process work? NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is on the line. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How would the various U.S. intelligence agencies analyze information like this?

MYRE: Well, from what we're seeing in some of the reporting is that there were some Taliban members who were captured in a raid about six months ago. And they were interrogated, and a large pile of cash was uncovered. And The New York Times is reporting today that U.S. intelligence found evidence of financial transfers from Russia to a Taliban-linked account. But the U.S. intelligence community is still assessing, and there's no consensus. And this is a classic problem for the intelligence community. You have to put together a puzzle with missing pieces.

And I spoke about this with Dan Hoffman. He's a former CIA officer who was the Moscow station chief and also worked in the Middle East.

DAN HOFFMAN: They served, you know, three years in overseas combat zones collecting this sort of tactical intelligence. It's not like fine wine getting better with age. You've got to get it out to the people at risk; that means our soldiers but also coalition forces.

INSKEEP: Does that mean you sometimes have to distribute intelligence information before everybody in the government agrees on what it means?

MYRE: Right. Exactly, Steve. And the CIA seems to be driving this, seems to be the agency that feels most strongly that this Russian bounty program is real, but we've seen very unusual development the past couple of days, where the defense secretary, the national security adviser, the director of national intelligence have all issued statements saying they can't confirm the bounty program, at least at this point. And Trump, as you noted, has said he was never told about the program before it broke in the news, but we are seeing reports that he might have been briefed as early as February.

INSKEEP: Well, again, let's talk about what the standard process is. Is Susan Rice correct that, in any administration, this kind of explosive information would be shared at the highest levels?

MYRE: Yeah. When I spoke with Dan Hoffman, the former CIA officer - he doesn't know the details in this case, but he said it was his experience that really critical, explosive intelligence should and would reach the White House. Here he is again.

HOFFMAN: My concern as an intelligence officer would be - I don't want the president or his national security adviser to be blindsided when Prime Minister Boris Johnson says, hey, about that reporting we received that the Russians have a bounty out for our people in Afghanistan - you know, I wouldn't want the president not to be aware of that information.

INSKEEP: A reference there to reports that the British knew; the U.K. was told of this U.S. intelligence finding, however incomplete it may have been. Now, let's take this information at face value. What does the report of this bounty program say about Russia's strategy in Afghanistan?

MYRE: You know, Steve, I thought back to 2001, and I was in Kabul right after the Americans drove the Taliban out. One of the most striking things I saw was Russia set up a field hospital to assist this U.S. mission because, at that time, the U.S. and Russia had a common interest in defeating Islamic extremism. But Russian President Vladimir Putin now is consistently pursuing policies aimed at undermining the U.S., and Afghanistan is just one example.

We got a hint of this four years ago, actually, when our NPR colleague Tom Bowman was in Afghanistan and was told by the Afghan military that Russia was already providing arms and training to the Taliban.

INSKEEP: Well, is it clear that Russia's program did contribute to U.S. deaths?

MYRE: No, it's not at this point. They're looking at a car bomb last year that killed three Americans. But there's still no concrete, definitive evidence.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you very much.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.