It was a blockbuster story about Russia’s return to the imperial “Great Game” in Afghanistan. The Kremlin had spread money around the longtime central Asian battlefield for militants to kill remaining U.S. forces. It sparked a massive outcry from Democrats and their #resistance amplifiers about the treasonous Russian puppet in the White House whose admiration for Vladimir Putin had endangered American troops.
But on Thursday, the Biden administration announced that U.S. intelligence only had “low to moderate” confidence in the story after all. Translated from the jargon of spyworld, that means the intelligence agencies have found the story is, at best, unproven—and possibly untrue.
“The United States intelligence community assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks on U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019 and perhaps earlier,” a senior administration official said.
“This information puts a burden on the Russian government to explain its actions and take steps to address this disturbing pattern of behavior,” the official said, indicating that Biden is unprepared to walk the story back fully.
Significantly, the Biden team announced a raft of sanctions on Thursday. But those sanctions, targeting Russia’s sovereign debt market, are prompted only by Russia’s interference in the 2020 election and its alleged role in the SolarWinds cyber espionage. (In contrast, Biden administration officials said that their assessment attributing the breach of technology company SolarWinds to hackers from Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service was “high confidence.”)
“We have noted our conclusion of the review that we conducted on the bounties issue and we have conveyed through diplomatic, intelligence, and military channels strong, direct messages on this issue, but we are not specifically tying the actions we are taking today to that matter,” a senior administration official told reporters in reference to the bounty claims.
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. Detainee reporting from a man known as Ibn Shaikh al-Libi, extracted from torture, infamously and bogusly fueled a Bush administration claim, used to invade Iraq, about Saddam Hussein training al Qaeda to make poison gas.
The senior Biden official added on Thursday that the “difficult operating environment in Afghanistan” complicated U.S. efforts to confirm what amounts to a rumor.
When asked whether Moscow put bounties on American forces in Afghanistan, press secretary Jen Psaki said at a press briefing on Thursday that the Biden administration “felt the reports were enough of a cause for concern that we wanted our intelligence community to look into this report as a part of this overall assessment.”
Psaki reiterated the intelligence community’s low-to-moderate confidence in its assessment about possible Russian bounties but said that U.S. intelligence had “high confidence” in a separate assessment that Russian military intelligence officers “manage interaction with individuals in Afghan criminal networks” and that the “involvement of this... unit is consistent with Russia’s encouraging attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan.”
“I am unsurprised that the review led to a murky determination of low to moderate confidence. While it is clear that Russia and other adversaries have been providing assistance to their proxies in Afghanistan, identifying type and amount of such assistance with great specificity has been the persistent challenge,” Jason Campbell, an Afghanistan policy official in the Obama Pentagon, told The Daily Beast.
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.
As well, there seemed to be no “causative link” to any actual U.S. deaths, in the judgment of Gen. Frank McKenzie, the senior U.S. general for the Middle East and South Asia. Former U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers told The Daily Beast last summer that they viewed the bounties account skeptically. One retired diplomat suspected “someone leaked this to slow down the troop withdrawal.”
Rarely discussed was the main reason to believe the story: the CIA actually did fund Afghan guerillas to kill Russian forces during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan of the 1980s.
The Pentagon said at the time that its massive intelligence apparatus, which includes both battlefield intelligence and the world’s most sophisticated surveillance network, did not generate the bounties story. In September, McKenzie said that the intelligence remained uncorroborated. “It just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me,” he told NBC News.
In the weeks following the existence of the uncorroborated Russian-bounty intel first breaking in The New York Times last summer, then-President Trump would repeatedly demand in closed-door meetings that whoever leaked the information be found, punished, or even “locked up,” according to sources and former administration officials with knowledge of what transpired at the time.
The initial set of Times bounty articles caught a number of senior White House staffers off-guard at first, who scrambled to figure out what was going on. One of the then-president's initial instincts was, naturally, that this was relayed to the press to make him look bad, and he would tell five individuals close to him that it further convinced him that the United States should pull its forces out of Afghanistan.
But in various meetings at the White House and in private conversations that followed that summer, Trump would continue to speculate on how or why this could have ended up in the media, three people familiar with the matter said. At times, he said he believed it was done by officials who wanted Joe Biden to win the 2020 election, or who wanted to stay and fight in Afghanistan “forever.” He demanded to know who in the CIA or intelligence community could have possibly done this to him.
At at least one point that summer, Trump mentioned that he'd heard that the intel could have been “totally phony” or manufactured because it could have been drawn from intel sources who didn't know what they were talking about, making up wild tales, or saying anything after someone had “kicked the crap out of them.”
That last speculation surprised, or somewhat confused, two of the sources who were familiar with the comment at the time, if only because Trump had repeatedly said for years that torture “absolutely works” and that the United States should revive waterboarding and other brutal measures against terror suspects. “It really sounded like the [then-]president was just grabbing for anything he could say,” one of these people recalled. “He was told by administration officials that the reporting was based on unverified claims, and he spun from that, I think.”
Regardless of whether the intelligence was fully corroborated or not, this didn't stop top officials in the Trump administration from sending notice to Russian counterparts. As The Daily Beast first reported in July, the U.S. State Department issued warnings to the Russian government that there would be a response if Moscow were then indeed caught paying bounties to Taliban fighters for the slayings of American troops in Afghanistan. Then-President Trump, for his part, publicly claimed that month that he did not raise the topic Russian leader Vladimir Putin. “That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news,” Trump said in an interview with Axios.
Meanwhile, Democrats ran with the election-time story. Then-candidate Biden called it a “horrifying revelation” if true. The senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Robert Menendez (D-NJ), introduced a measure to sanction Russia for the alleged bounties. Congressional Democrats claimed to have been insufficiently briefed on the account, which the Trump White House called a “hoax,” and suggested there was a cover-up underway. When Trump himself denied being briefed on the story, House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) remarked, “Is this an issue where they cannot tell the president things he doesn't want to hear when it comes to Vladimir Putin and Russia?”
Added House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in June, “I think we knew the White House perspective, what we need to know is the intelligence perspective.” Now he knows.