AP sources: White House aware of Russian bounties in 2019

By James LaPorta | The Associated Press

Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of
classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering
bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, a full year
earlier than has been previously reported, according to U.S.
officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence.

The assessment was included in at least one of President Donald
Trump’s written daily intelligence briefings at the time,
according to the officials. Then-national security adviser John
Bolton also told colleagues he briefed Trump on the intelligence
assessment in March 2019.

The White House did not respond to questions about Trump or
other officials’ awareness of Russia’s provocations in 2019.
The White House has said Trump was not — and still has not been
— briefed on the intelligence assessments because they have not
been fully verified. However, it is rare for intelligence to be
confirmed without a shadow of a doubt before it is presented to top
officials.

Bolton declined to comment Monday when asked by the AP if he had
briefed Trump about the matter in 2019. On Sunday, he suggested to
NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Trump was claiming ignorance of
Russia’s provocations to justify his administration’s lack of a
response.

“He can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it,”
Bolton said.

The revelations cast new doubt on the White House’s efforts to
distance Trump from the Russian intelligence assessments. The AP
reported Sunday that concerns about Russian bounties were also
included in a second written presidential daily briefing earlier
this year and that current national security adviser Robert
O’Brien had discussed the matter with Trump. O’Brien denies he
did so.

On Monday night, O’Brien said that while the intelligence
assessments regarding Russian bounties “have not been
verified,” the administration has “been preparing should the
situation warrant action.”

The administration’s earlier awareness of the Russian efforts
raises additional questions about why Trump did not take any
punitive action against Moscow for efforts that put the lives of
Americans servicemembers at risk. Trump has sought throughout his
time in office to improve relations with Russia and its president,
Vladimir Putin, moving earlier this year to try to reinstate Russia
as part of a group of world leaders it had been kicked out of.

Officials said they did not consider the intelligence
assessments in 2019 to be particularly urgent, given that Russian
meddling in Afghanistan is not a new occurrence. The officials with
knowledge of Bolton’s apparent briefing for Trump said it
contained no “actionable intelligence,” meaning the
intelligence community did not have enough information to form a
strategic plan or response. However, the classified assessment of
Russian bounties was the sole purpose of the meeting.

The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not
authorized to disclose the highly sensitive information.

The intelligence that surfaced in early 2019 indicated Russian
operatives had become more aggressive in their desire to contract
with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant
group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a
foreign terrorist organization in 2012 during the Obama
administration.

The National Security Council and the undersecretary of defense
for intelligence did hold meetings regarding the intelligence. The
Pentagon declined to comment and the NSC did not respond to
questions about the meetings.

Concerns about Russian bounties flared anew this year after
members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known
to the public as SEAL Team Six, raided a Taliban outpost and
recovered roughly $500,000 in U.S. currency. The funds bolstered
the suspicions of the American intelligence community that the
Russians had offered money to Taliban militants and other linked
associations.

The White House contends the president was unaware of this
development as well.

The officials told the AP that career government officials
developed potential options for the White House to respond to the
Russian aggression in Afghanistan, which was first reported by The
New York Times.

However, the Trump administration has yet to authorize any
action.

The intelligence in 2019 and 2020 surrounding Russian bounties
was derived in part from debriefings of captured Taliban militants.
Officials with knowledge of the matter told the AP that Taliban
operatives from opposite ends of the country and from separate
tribes offered similar accounts.

The officials would not name the specific groups or give
specific locations in Afghanistan or time frames for when they were
detained.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, denied that Russian
intelligence officers had offered payments to the Taliban in
exchange for targeting U.S. and coalition forces.

The U.S. is investigating whether any Americans died as a result
of the Russian bounties. Officials are focused in particular on an
April 2019 attack on an American convoy. Three U.S. Marines were
killed after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their
armored vehicles as they returned to Bagram Airfield, the largest
U.S. military installation in Afghanistan.

The Marines exchanged gunfire with the vehicle at some point;
however, it’s not known if the gunfire occurred before or after
the car exploded.

Abdul Raqib Kohistani, the Bagram district police chief, said at
the time that at least five Afghan civilians were wounded after the
attack on the convoy, according to previous reporting by the AP. It
is not known if the civilians were injured by the car bomb or the
gunfire from U.S. Marines.

The Defense Department identified Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher
Slutman, 43, of Newark, Delaware; Sgt. Benjamin Hines, 31, of York,
Pennsylvania; and Cpl. Robert Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, New
York, as the Marines killed in April 2019. The three Marines were
all infantrymen assigned to 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, a reserve
infantry unit headquartered out of Garden City, New York.
Hendriks’ father told the AP that even a rumor of Russian
bounties should have been immediately addressed.

“If this was kind of swept under the carpet as to not make it
a bigger issue with Russia, and one ounce of blood was spilled when
they knew this, I lost all respect for this administration and
everything,” Erik Hendriks said.

Marine Maj. Roger Hollenbeck said at the time that the reserve
unit was a part of the Georgia Deployment Program-Resolute Support
Mission, a recurring six-month rotation between U.S. Marines and
Georgian Armed Forces. The unit first deployed to Afghanistan in
October 2018.

Three other service members and an Afghan contractor were also
wounded in the attack. As of April 2019, the attack was under a
separate investigation, unrelated to the Russian bounties, to
determine how it unfolded.

The officials who spoke to the AP also said they were looking
closely at insider attacks — sometimes called “green-on-blue”
incidents — from 2019 to determine if they are also linked to
Russian bounties.

Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Deb Riechmann in
Washington, Deepti Hajela in New York and Vladimir Isachenkov in
Moscow contributed to this report.

Source: FS – All – Interesting – News 2
AP sources: White House aware of Russian bounties in
2019