It is always a good idea to be careful whom you trust before repeating a story. One of the enduring legacies of the Trump years is how sharply it winnowed the list of media organizations, media figures, and government institutions who could be trusted as sources of information, particularly on stories without on-the-record sources or hard, documentary evidence. One of the most egregious examples of that from the 2020 campaign was the story that Russia had a program that paid bounties to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
That story started collapsing by mid-September, as I wrote at the time:
NBC News’ Courtney Kube and Ken Dilanian have now reported that no such consensus intelligence finding ever existed. . . . The NBC report is based on military sources, including comments on the record from General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for the entire region . . . “[General McKenzie] says a detailed review of all available intelligence has not been able to corroborate the existence of such a program. . . . Senior military officials say they don’t believe the intelligence is strong enough to act on” . . . . In other words, not only is there not a consensus intelligence finding, there is a consensus view among the military brass that the story hasn’t been proven.
In spite of this, Joe Biden continued telling the bounties story, charging during a debate with Donald Trump that “I don’t understand why this President is unwilling to take on Putin when he’s actually paying bounties to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.” Barack Obama, a few days later, thundered: “When Russia puts bounties on the heads of our soldiers in Afghanistan, the commander-in-chief can’t be MIA: missing in action”:
OBAMA: "When Russia puts bounties on the heads of our soldiers in Afghanistan, the commander-in-chief can’t be MIA: missing in action. Joe Biden would never call the men and women of our military suckers or losers." pic.twitter.com/JyYVtzpZeh
— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) October 27, 2020
Well, if you were not already convinced by September’s reports that the original story was a garbage campaign-season hit job, the latest news drives the final nail in its coffin. The Biden administration itself went “missing in action” on the story, leaving it off the list of Russian misconduct that it cited to justify new sanctions. From Military Times:
“The United States intelligence community assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, including through financial incentives and compensation,” a senior administration official told reporters on Thursday.
“Low to moderate confidence” is intel-speak for “uncorroborated rumor.” It was basically just something an interrogator heard from a detainee who may have heard it second- or third-hand or may just have been making it up:
US intelligence had “low to moderate confidence” in the reporting on bounties because “it’s based in part on detainee reporting and because of the difficult operating environment in Afghanistan”, a senior administration official told reporters. “There is an assessment that Russian intelligence officers did seek to encourage Taliban attacks against US and coalition personnel, including through financial incentives and compensation,” the official added. “But because of the low to moderate confidence element of this, our focus is on sending a clear message to Russia about the steps the United States would take in response to such behavior if it were to continue.”
As Adam Rawnsley and Spencer Ackerman at The Daily Beast conclude:
According to the officials on Thursday’s call, the reporting about the alleged “bounties” came from “detainee reporting” – raising the specter that someone told their U.S.-aligned Afghan jailers what they thought was necessary to get out of a cage. Specifically, the official cited “information and evidence of connections to criminal agents in Afghanistan and elements of the Russian government” as sources for the intelligence community’s assessment. Without additional corroboration, such reporting is notoriously unreliable…
There were reasons to doubt the story from the start. Not only did the initial stories emphasize its basis on detainee reporting, but the bounties represented a qualitative shift in recent Russian engagements with Afghan insurgents. Russian operatives have long been suspected of moving money to various Afghan militants: an out-of-favor former Taliban official told The Daily Beast on the record that Russia gave them cash for years. But the Russians had not been suspected of sponsoring attacks on U.S. forces outright – an escalation that risked confrontation with the U.S., and occurring long after it could have made a difference in the war.
None of this stopped Biden and the Democrats from putting everything they had behind this story at the time. They knew it was likely fake news, a hoax, a scam, whatever else you want to call it. But they didn’t care. They won, didn’t they?