Spies and commandos warned months ago of Russian rewards in US troops

WASHINGTON – United States intelligence officers and Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan have alerted their superiors since January to an alleged Russian plot to pay rewards to the Taliban for killing US troops in Afghanistan, according to officials informed on the case.

Crucial information that prompted spies and commandos to focus on rewards included recovering a large amount of US cash from a raid on a Taliban outpost that raised suspicion. Interrogations of captured militants and criminals played a central role in making the intelligence community confident in its assessment that the Russians had offered and paid rewards in 2019, another official said.

Armed with this information, military and intelligence officials have been reviewing combat victims of the US coalition and others since early last year to determine if anyone was a victim of the plot. Four Americans were killed in combat in early 2020, but the Taliban have not attacked American positions since a February deal to end the long-running war in Afghanistan.

The emerging details were added to the image of the classified intelligence assessment, which the New York Times reported Friday that it was reported to President Trump and discussed by the White House National Security Council at an interagency meeting in late March. The Trump administration has yet to act against the Russians, officials said.

Trump defended himself on Sunday, denying that he had received intelligence, expanding on a similar rebuttal from the White House a day earlier, as top Congressional Democrats and even some Republicans demanded a response to Russia that the administration had not yet authorized. .

The president “needs to expose and handle this immediately, and stop the shadow war in Russia,” Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on Twitter.

Appearing on the ABC show “This Week,” speaker Nancy Pelosi said she had not been informed of the intelligence assessment and had requested an immediate report from Congress. She accused Mr. Trump of wanting to “ignore” any charges against Russia.

“Russia has never overcome the humiliation they suffered in Afghanistan, and now they are taking it out on us, our troops,” he said of the bloody war in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. “This is totally outrageous. You would think that the moment the president found out, he would want to know more rather than deny that he knew anything. “

CIA spokespersons, the director of national intelligence and the Pentagon declined to comment on the new findings. A spokesman for the National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Although White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Saturday that Trump had not been briefed on the intelligence report, a US official had told the Times that the report was reported to the highest levels of the White House. . Another said it was included in the President’s Daily Brief, a compendium of foreign policy and national security intelligence compiled for Trump to read.

Ms. McEnany did not question the Times reports of the existence of the intelligence assessment, the National Security Council meeting, and the inaction of the White House. Several news organizations also subsequently reported on the assessment.

Officials reported on the matter said the assessment had been treated as a closely guarded secret, but that the administration expanded briefings on it over the past week, including exchanging information about it with the British government, whose forces were currently among which it is said that they were attacked. .

Republicans in Congress demanded more information from the Trump administration about what happened and how the White House planned to respond.

Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third Republican in the House of Representatives, said in a Twitter message on Sunday: “If it is true that Russian rewards are reported on US forces, the White House should explain: 1. Why weren’t the president or vice president? informed? Was the information in the PDB? 2. Who knew and when? 3. What has been done in response to protect our forces and hold Putin accountable?

Several Republicans retweeted Ms. Cheney’s post. Rep. Daniel Crenshaw, R-Texas and former Navy SEAL, amplified his message, tweeting, “We need answers.”

On CNN, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, said the reported Russian actions “would be consistent with the Russian practice in recent years of doing everything possible in secret to try to undermine the Western government, including the United States.”

In addition to saying he was never “informed or informed” about the intelligence report, a formulation that went beyond the White House’s refusal of any formal briefing, Trump also questioned the assessment’s credibility, that the statements of their subordinates they did not have.

Specifically, he described the intelligence report on “the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by the Russians”; The report describes the rewards paid to Taliban militants by Russian military intelligence officers, not direct attacks. Trump also suggested that the events could be a “hoax” and questioned whether the sources of the Times, government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, existed.

Then Trump turned to attack former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who criticized the president on Saturday for not punishing Russia for offering rewards to the Taliban, as well as Biden’s son Hunter, who is the target of claims. baseless that he helped a Ukrainian energy company win favor with the Obama administration when his father was vice president.

“No one has been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration,” Trump tweeted. “With the corrupt Joe Biden and Obama, Russia had a field day and took over important parts of Ukraine. Where’s Hunter?”

US officials said the Russian plot to pay rewards to Taliban fighters came into focus in recent months after intelligence analysts and Special Operations forces gathered key evidence.

An official said the seizure of a large amount of US cash at a Taliban site drew “everyone’s attention” in Afghanistan. It was unclear when the money was recovered.

Two officials said the information about bounty hunting was “well known” among the intelligence community in Afghanistan, including the CIA station chief and other top officials there, such as military commandos hunting the Taliban. The information was distributed in intelligence reports and was highlighted in some of them.

In recent months, the assessment was compiled and sent the chain of command to senior military and intelligence officials, and finally landed at the highest levels of the White House. The Security Council meeting in March came at a delicate time, as the coronavirus pandemic was turning into a crisis and causing closures across the country.

A former U.S. official said the intelligence analyst reporting to the president and national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien, who works with his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, would have been involved in any decision to report to Mr. Trump on Russia occupations. CIA Director Gina Haspel could also have intervened, the former official said.

Ms. McEnany quoted the three senior officials in her statement as saying that the President had not been informed.

Pelosi said that if the president had not been informed, then the country should be concerned that his administration would be afraid to share information about Russia with him.

Pelosi said the episode underscored Trump’s complacent stance toward Russia and that with him, “all roads lead to Putin.”

“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians in this regard, he denies being informed,” he said. “Whether it is or not, your administration knows it, and some of our allies working with us in Afghanistan have been informed and accept this report.”

John R. Bolton, a former Trump national security adviser, said on the ABC show “This Week” that he was unaware of the intelligence assessment, but questioned Trump’s response on Twitter.

“What would motivate the president to do that, because it looks bad if the Russians are paying to kill Americans and we are doing nothing about it?” Mr. Bolton said. “The presidential reaction is to say: ‘It is not my responsibility. No one told me. And, therefore, to avoid any complaint that it has not acted effectively. “

Bolton said this summed up Trump’s decision-making on national security issues. “It just isn’t related to the reality that you’re dealing with.”

Nicholas Fandos, Julian E. Barnes, Charlie Savage, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Michael D. Shear contributed to the reports.