The Trump administration has for years gathered intelligence about foreign powers, including Russia and Iran, that use financial means to support and encourage armed militants in Afghanistan, according to six current and former U.S. intelligence and national security officials. And, those officials said, the president has been briefed about those wide-ranging efforts.
One current senior national-security official and two other former officials familiar with intelligence gathering in Afghanistan said the Trump administration has closely tracked ways in which Iran uses cash to support militants in the Haqqani Network who have killed U.S. soldiers.
But when intelligence emerged earlier this year that Russia had concocted a specific plan to pay bounties to mercenaries to kill American soldiers, intelligence and national-security leaders did not brief the president in person. A person with knowledge of the situation says that although they are aware that the intelligence has circulated in the White House and within Trump’s own national-security apparatus, they were unaware of any direct, face-to-face briefing that the president had received.
The subject of what the president knew when—or if he knew anything at all—about the Russian bounties has become a major issue in Washington. “We need to understand why the president wasn’t briefed, who knew about it and when, and what our response to Russia will be if these reports turn out credible,” Republican Rep. Bob Wittman on the House Armed Services Committee said in a statement. “If this intelligence is determined to be true, this is another in a long list of escalations of aggression from Russia.”
Multiple and sometimes contradictory reports have appeared about the extent and timing of information available to the president.
On Monday night, the Associated Press wrote that senior White House officials knew about “classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans” in “early 2019,” a year earlier than previously reported. How detailed and specific that intelligence may have been remains unclear.
According to the AP, then-National Security Adviser John Bolton has “told colleagues” that he briefed President Donald Trump personally about the bounty issue in March 2019. But Bolton, who is now promoting a book after extended silence about his time in the White House, “did not respond” to the AP’s queries about the supposed briefing, and the third-person account remains unconfirmed.
CNN reported Monday evening that information about the Russian bounty offers was contained in at least one edition of the President’s Daily Brief. According to The New York Times, the written briefing was delivered in February, and the information about the Russian bounties circulated widely in the intelligence community in May. The AP report says the intelligence first made its way into one PDB, as these documents are called, more than a year ago.
The AP noted that when Bolton appeared Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press he suggested Trump claims ignorance to justify inaction. “He can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it,” Bolton said.
But the problem is not just a matter of dissembling; according to several sources, it’s a matter of Trump not wanting to know about intelligence outside his comfort zone, and the reluctance of officials to push information on him they know he will resist, especially if their conclusions are less than clear-cut. Those may go into a PDB, but not get mentioned in a face-to-face briefing.
Intelligence coming out of Afghanistan, with its many contending factions and shifting alliances, can be especially problematic. The Daily Beast reported in 2015 that the Taliban were developing their ties to Russia, ostensibly to fight the Afghan branch of the Islamic State terror group. Over the last five years, according to Afghan sources, that cooperation has extended to include Russian-Taliban cooperation with Iran, with its well-known record of paying bounties for attacks. But the situation has grown even more complicated of late amid allegations by the Taliban that ISIS recruits may have worked with former senior Afghan government intelligence officers to plot the assassination of Trump’s peace negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. They are said to believe Khalilzad is selling out to the Taliban.
The person cited above with knowledge of the intelligence circulating at the White House about the Russian offer of bounties to kill Americans told The Daily Beast they did not dispute accounts suggesting the information had appeared in at least one PDB. But the source noted that the chances that Trump would have read that himself are “basically zero.”
A former Trump administration official with knowledge about the president’s intelligence briefings said the assessment about the Russian bounties should have been brought to the president directly. But that does not mean that happened.
Within the intelligence and national-security community, some officials raised questions about the methods used to craft the assessment and whether the information had been corroborated through other sources. Others believed the intelligence reveals a significant change in Russia’s behavior in Afghanistan—and poses immediate risks to U.S. troops on the ground, according to two individuals read in on the conversations surrounding the intelligence assessment.
The reluctance to brief President Trump face-to-face followed an old and familiar pattern, officials say. Although intelligence officials regularly brief presidents about sensitive matters they are not always 100 percent confident about, top officials in that space and in the national-security community have chosen several times to avoid briefing President Trump, two current and two former senior officials involved in the briefing process told The Daily Beast.
“If there was evidence… even if thinly sourced, there’s an option to bring it to the president’s attention but let him know it is thinly sourced,” one former senior intelligence official said. “If it’s less important information, then the intelligence community usually wants to have more confidence. But the intelligence community always makes their confidence level clear.”
Officials said there’s trepidation about briefing the president about Russia, in particular, given his past sensitivity to the subject, and that there’s concern he may post on social media about the intelligence.
“Trump has little patience for intelligence briefings, especially when the news isn’t good for him. These briefings happen irregularly, and are often free-for-alls,” one former official said. “He also shows little respect for classified information and might tweet about it—which would counter efforts to handle the issue out of the public eye.”
According to a source with direct knowledge, shortly after Trump was made aware of the New York Times story this weekend, he had two immediate reactions behind closed doors: He reflexively questioned the veracity of the reported intel simply because it was printed in the Times, which he frequently denounces as an adversary. And the prospect of more Americans dying as a result of these bounties once again caused him to emphasize his desire—and explicit campaign goal—to pull U.S. military personnel out of the country between now and November.
“Why are we still there?” Trump privately vented this weekend as he reacted to the Times reporting, according to this source.
It’s unclear how far the president will go in the remaining months of his first term to actually draw down the already reduced number of troops in Afghanistan, given the wild way his impulses and orders in foreign conflicts have oscillated between ramped-up violence and calls for ending this costly Forever War.
“If President Trump wants to win, he’s going to have to excite his base,” said a source close to the White House who has advised the administration on foreign policy matters. “One way to do that is to actually start bringing troops home from Afghanistan and begin fulfilling his promises to end these awful endless wars. I know this is something he wants to do before Election Day, even if to just run on it.”
This individual added that, “The polling on this is overwhelming—it’s consistently 70-30 in favor of getting out, and cuts across party lines. But the core MAGA base in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania would be particularly excited by this.”