WASHINGTON – U.S. intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to officials briefed on the matter.
The crucial information that led the spies and commandos to focus on the bounties included the recovery of a large amount of American cash from a raid on a Taliban outpost that prompted suspicions. Interrogations of captured militants and criminals played a central role in making the intelligence community confident in its assessment that the Russians had offered and paid bounties in 2019, another official has said.
Armed with this information, military and intelligence officials have been reviewing U.S. and other coalition combat casualties since early last year to determine whether any were victims of the plot. Four Americans were killed in combat in early 2020, but the Taliban fighters have not attacked U.S. positions since a February agreement to end the long-running war in Afghanistan.
The details added to the picture of the classified intelligence assessment, which the New York Times reported Friday, has been under discussion inside the Trump administration since at least March, and it emerged as the White House confronted a growing chorus of criticism Sunday over its apparent failure to authorize a response to Russia.
Trump defended himself by denying the Times report that he had been briefed on the intelligence, expanding on a similar White House rebuttal a day earlier. But leading congressional Democrats and some Republicans demanded a response to Russia that, according to officials, the administration has yet to authorize.
The president “needs to immediately expose and handle this, and stop Russia’s shadow war,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on Twitter.
Appearing on the ABC program “This Week,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she had not been briefed on the intelligence assessment and had asked for an immediate report to Congress. She accused Trump of wanting “to ignore” any charges against Russia.
“Russia has never gotten over the humiliation they suffered in Afghanistan, and now they are taking it out on us, our troops,” she said of the Soviet Union’s bloody war there in the 1980s. “This is totally outrageous. You would think that the minute the president heard of it, he would want to know more instead of denying that he knew anything.”
Spokespeople for the CIA, the Director of National Intelligence and the Pentagon declined to comment on the new findings. A National Security Council spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Though the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, claimed Saturday that Trump had not been briefed about the intelligence report, one U.S. official had told the Times that the report was briefed to the highest levels of the White House. Another said it was included in the President’s Daily Brief, a compendium of foreign policy and national security intelligence compiled for Trump to read.
McEnany did not challenge the Times’ reporting on the existence of the intelligence assessment, a National Security Council interagency meeting about it in late March and the White House’s inaction. Multiple other news organizations also subsequently reported on the assessment.
The officials briefed on the matter said the assessment had been treated as a closely held secret but that the administration expanded briefings about it over the past week — including sharing information about it with the British government, whose forces were among those said to have been targeted.
Republicans in Congress demanded more information from the Trump administration about what happened and how the White House planned to respond.
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, said in a Twitter post Sunday: “If reporting about Russian bounties on U.S. 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?”
In addition to saying he was never “briefed or told” about the intelligence report — a formulation that went beyond the White House denial of any formal briefing — Trump also cast doubt on the assessment’s credibility, which statements from his subordinates had not.
Specifically, he described the intelligence report as being about “so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians.” The report described bounties paid to Taliban militants by Russian military intelligence officers, not direct attacks. Trump also suggested that the developments could be a “hoax” and questioned whether the Times’ sources — government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity — even existed.
Trump then pivoted to attack former Vice President Joe Biden — who criticized the president Saturday for failing to punish Russia for offering bounties to the Taliban — as well as Biden’s son, Hunter, who is the target of unsubstantiated claims that he helped a Ukrainian energy firm curry favor with the Obama administration when his father was vice president.
“Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration,” Trump tweeted. “With Corrupt Joe Biden & Obama, Russia had a field day, taking over important parts of Ukraine — Where’s Hunter?”
The assessment was compiled and sent up the chain of command to senior military and intelligence officials, eventually landing at the highest levels of the White House. The Security Council meeting in March came at a delicate time, as the coronavirus pandemic was becoming a crisis and prompting shutdowns around the country.
National security officials have tracked Russia’s relationship with the Taliban for years and determined that Moscow has provided financial and material support to senior and regional Taliban leaders.
While Russia has at times cooperated with the U.S., it often works at crosscurrents with its own national interest if the result is damage to U.S. national interests, a former White House official said.