| June 28, 2020 01:17 AM
The nation’s spy chief denied reports that President Trump had been briefed on a U.S. intelligence report claiming that Russian military intelligence was offering bounties to Afghan militants to target U.S. and coalition forces.
“I have confirmed that neither the President nor the Vice President were ever briefed on any intelligence alleged by the New York Times in its reporting yesterday,” Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said in a statement released just before midnight on Saturday. “The White House statement addressing this issue earlier today, which denied such a briefing occurred, was accurate. The New York Times reporting, and all other subsequent news reports about such an alleged briefing are inaccurate.”
The New York Times reported on Friday that a U.S intelligence assessment concluded that a Russian spy unit paid Taliban-connected militants in Afghanistan to kill U.S. and other 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 Trump was briefed about the bounties during an interagency meeting late in March. Officials developed a list of options to respond, but the outlet’s sources said the administration has yet to authorize any of the actions.
The Trump administration has denied that Trump was briefed on the alleged plot, although it has neither confirmed nor denied the veracity of the alleged intelligence report itself.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Saturday that the United States “receives thousands of intelligence reports a day and they are subject to strict scrutiny” and that “while the White House does not routinely comment on alleged intelligence or internal deliberations, the CIA Director, the National Security Adviser, and the Chief of Staff can all confirm that neither the President nor the Vice President were briefed on the alleged Russian bounty intelligence” She added that “this does not speak to the merit of the alleged intelligence but to the inaccuracy of the New York Times story erroneously suggesting that President Trump was briefed on this matter.”
Richard Grenell, the former acting director of National Intelligence, said the New York Times story wasn’t true when Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, tweeted at Grenell daring him to confirm whether he did not tell Trump and Vice President Mike Pence about a Russian military intelligence unit offering financial rewards to Taliban militants to kill U.S. troops or that McEnany was lying.
“I never heard this,” Grenell said. “And it’s disgusting how you continue to politicize intelligence. You clearly don’t understand how raw intel gets verified. Leaks of partial information to reporters from anonymous sources is dangerous because people like you manipulate it for political gain.”
Lieu retorted: “If you are telling the truth, why doesn’t White House deny bounty story instead of saying you didn’t brief @POTUS?”
Grenell replied, “All anonymous sources. And these same reporters gave us the Russian collusion hoax you still hold on to.”
Grenell served as Trump’s acting spy chief from Feb. 20 to May 26, overseeing the 17-member U.S. Intelligence Community. He also was U.S. ambassador to Germany and remains the special presidential envoy for Serbia and Kosovo peace negotiations.
Numerous commentators on Twitter began asking why officials would decide not to tell Trump or Pence about a Russian spy unit paying militants to kill U.S. troops.
Grenell responded to an NBC News reporter asking this “obvious and very serious question.”
“You are basing a whole bunch of assumptions on an anonymous source from the NYT,” he said. Grenell also dismissed a tweet asking if a bounty on American heads was fine with him. “Disgusting. No one would be fine with this if it were true,” he tweeted.
Other outlets — including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and CNN — also reported on the alleged bounties against U.S. and other coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Former Vice President Joe Biden reacted to the reporting by saying Saturday that Trump’s “embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin.” The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee claimed that Trump’s “entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale.”
The New York Times claimed that officials briefed on the matter said the bounty operation was pushed 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 in the United Kingdom. That unit is additionally believed to be behind a number of other international operations.
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, including the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email systems and the provision of the purloined emails to WikiLeaks for dissemination.
Twenty-four U.S. service members have been killed in combat in Afghanistan since the start of 2019. It remains unclear which of those killings, if any, may be under suspicion of having a financial incentive. The U.S. and the Taliban struck a shaky peace agreement in February.