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The Key Unanswered Questions of the Russian-Bounty Controversy

U.S. Army Third Infantry Division soldiers provide security during an Afghan-led operation near Kabul, September 16, 2018. (Sean Kimmons / U.S. Army)
Making sense of the latest fight between the president and the media

President Trump has found himself in another battle with the media, amid reports that the Russian GRU allegedly struck a deal with the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

The controversy began on June 26, with a New York Times report: 

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 — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The article went on to say with great certainty that U.S. officials “concluded months ago” that Russians were dishing out bounties. Then, on June 30, the Times published another report saying that financial transfers occurred between the Russians and a “Taliban-linked account,” and asserting that Trump was informed of the bounties in his daily written briefing in February. This second story noted that the intelligence on the bounty program was “considered solid enough” to be circulated to allies and in the CIA World Intelligence Review on May 4.

In response to the resulting outcry, the White House and intelligence leaders briefed lawmakers and commissioned a memo summarizing the available knowledge. According to the Times, the National Intelligence Council’s memo “acknowledged that the C.I.A. and top counterterrorism officials have assessed that Russia appears to have offered bounties to kill American and coalition troops in Afghanistan, but emphasized uncertainties and gaps in evidence, according to three officials.”

The White House has both disputed the credibility of these reports and asserted that Trump was not apprised of the relevant intelligence. In a press briefing on June 29, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president was never briefed. “The CIA director, NSA — national-security adviser — and the chief of staff can all confirm that neither the president nor the vice president were briefed on the alleged Russia . . . Russian bounty intelligence,” McEnany claimed. She went on to add that the intelligence “was not briefed up to the president because it was not, in fact, verified.” And she said flatly that the Times had “erroneously reported that the President was briefed on this.” Trump himself took to Twitter to deny that he’d been briefed on the intelligence and to attack the media.

Defense-community leaders have condemned the leaks of classified information while reiterating that the president will not be briefed on unsubstantiated intelligence. CIA director Gina Haspel complained that the leaks that underpinned the Times’s reporting disrupted “critical interagency work to collect, assess and ascribe culpability.” Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national-security adviser, has echoed Haspel, pointing out that the leaks will make it far more difficult to corroborate important leads. In regard to the Times’s assertion that the intel was deemed credible enough to be circulated to allies, O’Brien noted that such intelligence sharing was a corroboration method.

Assuming that the Russians did, in fact, establish a bounty program with the Taliban, as the Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal have all now reported, we’re left with four major questions: 1) Did the president receive a briefing, whether written or oral? 2) If so, does the form of the briefing matter? 3) Was the information sound enough to merit the president’s attention? 4) Was its circulation to allies a corroboration effort or a warning?

In regard to the first question, things don’t look great for Trump. For one thing, he is known to skip his written intelligence briefings, opting instead for oral reports from intelligence officials. The White House denies he was briefed on this matter, but the Times has reported that a written briefing did occur. Even if there was no oral briefing and the president can honestly say he hadn’t known of the intelligence before the Times’s story broke, he should rightly be criticized for skipping his daily written briefs, which are, after all, part of his job.

In the case of the second question, the form of the briefing matters precisely because Trump prefers to be briefed orally. If a written brief in February included the intelligence, but the president and the CIA say he was never made aware of it, that means the same intelligence was never included in an oral briefing, which in turn suggests that the information deemed important enough by the intelligence community to include in written form and the information being shared with Trump in his preferred oral form are not the same. If that’s the case, does it represent a failure of the intelligence community? Perhaps, but O’Brien maintains that Trump’s CIA briefer “made the right call” in keeping the intelligence from him because “she didn’t have confidence in [it].” Does it represent a failure on the part of the White House? That seems a safer bet. Surely someone else — a high-level staffer or adviser — reads the written briefs, which means the intelligence should have found its way to Trump regardless.

The third question is, in essence, whether this entire controversy is a tempest in a teapot. It centers on how reliable the CIA deemed the relevant intelligence to be. If the intelligence was deemed reliable enough to bring to the president, yet he was never made aware of it, then someone in the Trump administration dropped the ball. If not, then the story is most likely being blown way out of proportion.

As for the fourth question, if, as the administration insists, the intelligence was simply circulated to allies in an effort to gain corroboration, then the White House could still make the case that the information did not have enough credence to merit official action. But, if, as the Times asserts, it was circulated as a warning or as verified intelligence, then the criticism of Trump could be valid.

Carine Hajjar is an editorial intern at National Review and a student at Harvard University studying government, data science, and economics.

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