The nation’s top spy chiefs condemned the classified leaks about an alleged plot by Russia to offer bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. forces, warning the selective leaking jeopardized the intelligence community’s ability to ascertain the veracity of the claims.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and CIA Director Gina Haspel released separate statements within minutes of each other late Monday night.
Ratcliffe, who, last month, was sworn in as the head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where he oversees the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies, said, “U.S. and coalition force protection is a critical priority for both the President and the Intelligence Community” and “the selective leaking of any classified information disrupts the vital interagency work to collect, assess, and mitigate threats and places our forces at risk.” He added: “It is also, simply put, a crime.”
“We are still investigating the alleged intelligence referenced in recent media reporting and we will brief the President and Congressional leaders at the appropriate time,” Ratcliffe said. “This is the analytic process working the way it should. Unfortunately, unauthorized disclosures now jeopardize our ability to ever find out the full story with respect to these allegations.”
The New York Times reported Friday that a U.S. intelligence assessment concluded that a Russian spy unit paid Taliban-connected militants in Afghanistan to kill U.S. and coalition troops even as the Trump administration sought to reach a peace deal involving the Taliban and the Afghan government. The New York Times further reported that Trump was briefed about the bounties in the spring and that officials developed a list of options to respond, but the outlet’s sources said the administration had yet to authorize any of the actions. Ratcliffe claimed that Trump had never been briefed on these allegations.
Trump said late Sunday night that “intel” had just told him they did not assess the intelligence to be “credible.” This was after he claimed that “nobody briefed or told” him, Vice President Mike Pence, or chief of staff Mark Meadows “about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians.”
A senior Trump administration official told the Washington Examiner on Sunday that Trump had not been briefed on the issue because there was a lack of consensus within the intelligence community. National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot told the Washington Examiner that “the veracity of the underlying allegations continues to be evaluated.”
Haspel, who took over the CIA in 2018, said that “when developing intelligence assessments, initial tactical reports require additional collection and validation” and “in general, preliminary Force Protection information is shared throughout the national security community — and with U.S. allies — as part of our ongoing efforts to ensure the safety of coalition forces overseas.” The CIA director said “leaks compromise and disrupt the critical interagency work to collect, assess, and ascribe culpability.”
“Hostile states’ use of proxies in war zones to inflict damage on U.S. interests is a constant, longstanding concern,” Haspel said. “CIA will continue to pursue every lead, analyze the information we collect with critical objective eyes, and brief reliable intelligence to protect U.S. forces deployed around the world.”
Multiple reports were published on Monday that said the bounty claims had indeed wound up in one of Trump’s presidential daily briefings.
CNN cited a “U.S. official with direct knowledge of the latest information” when reporting that the Russia-Taliban bounty plot intelligence was included in Trump’s PDB “sometime in the spring” and the assessment was buttressed by “several pieces of information” including “interrogation of Taliban detainees and electronic eavesdropping.”
The New York Times cited “two officials familiar with the matter” when reporting that “American officials provided a written briefing in late February” — likely on Feb. 27 — “to President Trump laying out their conclusion” about the GRU-Taliban bounty plot, adding that the investigation has “focused in part” on a car bombing in April 2019 which killed three Marines.
The Associated Press reported that “top officials in the White House were aware” of the alleged Russian bounty plot “in early 2019.”
The Pentagon released a statement late Monday night saying that it “continues to evaluate intelligence that Russian GRU operatives were engaged in malign activity against the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan,” but, “to date, DOD has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports.”
National security adviser Robert O’Brien said “the allegations in recent press articles have not been verified or substantiated by the Intelligence Community.” He added: “To those government officials who betray the trust of the people of the United States by leaking classified information, your actions endanger our national security.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Monday that “there are dissenting opinions from some in the intelligence community with regards to the veracity of what’s being reported, and the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated.” She said that “it would not be elevated to the president until it was verified” and Trump “was not personally briefed on the matter.”
Rep. Jim Banks, an Afghan War veteran and member of the Armed Services Committee, tweeted Monday that he had been briefed by Meadows and “top intelligence officials” on Monday, arguing that “the real scandal” is that “we’ll never know the truth” because the New York Times “used unconfirmed intel in an ONGOING investigation into targeted killing of American soldiers in order to smear the President.” The Indiana Republican said “the blood is on their hands.”
Daniel Hoffman, the CIA’s former Moscow station chief, told the Washington Examiner on Monday the classified leaks “make it trickier to collect intelligence to corroborate this story — it makes it trickier to corroborate when it is discussed publicly.” Hoffman, who has also helped run anti-Taliban operations, said that “caution is the word until we find out a little bit more” as he noted that the Taliban militants who allegedly provided this intelligence “are likely trying to influence more than they are trying to inform — and who knows what their motivation is?”
Hoffman added: “Does the Taliban need another motivation to kill us? No. Would Russia want to take the risk of this being discovered? Maybe.” The former CIA operator noted that the GRU “is a blunt instrument.”
“If I was doing the PDB, I would’ve briefed him on it,” Hoffman said, adding that he would have stressed to the president that the intelligence came from “not recruited sources, just a bunch of captured guys — just wanted you to know, but take it with a grain of salt, sir.” He said that “it’s a big deal, and you’d want him to be aware of it, especially if you’re sharing it with coalition partners.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday that “it seems clear that the intelligence is real” and that “the question is whether the President was briefed.” She asked: “If he was not briefed, why would he not be briefed? Were they afraid to approach him on the subject of Russia?” The Democratic leader later released a statement saying she had spoken with Ratcliffe and Haspel. Pelosi also called for a full House briefing on the matter and said that “many serious questions remain regarding what the White House is doing to address threats to American and allied troops and to hold Russia accountable.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told PBS, “I would like to find out what they’d say in terms of their confidence regarding these allegations, if they felt they couldn’t bring this to the president’s attention, why they couldn’t, or if they, in fact, did bring this to the president’s attention.” The California Democrat said that “if the president doesn’t want to hear it, won’t listen to it, won’t hear a bad word said about Putin’s Russia, then, obviously, we need to know about that.”
A host of Democratic lawmakers are expected to be briefed by intelligence officials on Tuesday.
Two dozen U.S. service members have been killed in combat in Afghanistan since the start of 2019. The United States and the Taliban struck a shaky peace agreement in February.
The Taliban denied accepting such bounties from Russia, and the Russian Embassy in the U.S. called the reporting ” fake news.” Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said Saturday that Trump’s “entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale.”
The New York Times reported that officials briefed on the matter said the bounty operation was run by Russian military intelligence’s Main Directorate of the General Staff, known as the GRU, and specifically by its Unit 29155. That GRU unit is also believed to be behind the 2018 Novichok nerve agent poisoning of former Russian military officer and British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal.
Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation named two other GRU units, Unit 26165 and 74455, as being behind Russia’s election interference efforts during the 2016 presidential election.