As I said yesterday, there are two key questions in this story. Did U.S. intelligence really conclude that Russia has placed bounties on American soldiers with Afghan jihadis? If so, was the president told?
Ed’s post this morning added some nuance to the first question. American intel may believe that the Russians are doing this, but as Tom Rogan says elsewhere today, “that belief and some evidence do not alone make a presidential-level intelligence product.” If you’re going to bring information to the commander-in-chief that may reshape U.S.-Russia relations, you want maximum confidence in its accuracy. Maybe the intel just wasn’t ripe yet. WaPo:
A third person familiar with the issue said that “I don’t think that anybody withheld anything and screwed up by not getting to the president on time.” Until “you were absolutely sure of the intelligence and the NSC had drawn up policy options, you weren’t going to walk into the Oval Office,” the person said.
So the issue is not when the president was briefed, the person said, but rather, “now that you are aware of it, what are you going to do about it? That’s where the focus should be.”
A National Security Council spokesman told the paper that “the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated.” That would potentially answer both of the questions posed up top. No, Trump hasn’t been briefed on it because, no, U.S. intel hadn’t “concluded” anything yet (or at least not until very recently).
But wait. The Associated Press, citing “American intelligence officials and two others with knowledge of the matter,” says differently:
The intelligence officials told the AP that Trump was briefed on the bounty matter earlier this year; Trump denied that, tweeting Sunday neither he nor Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed. Trump tweeted Sunday night he was just told intelligence officials didn’t report the information to him because they didn’t find it credible.
That makes two news outlets that are alleging that the president himself was told about the bounty scheme. The Times claimed on Friday that “[t]he intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March.” In a follow-up story last night, the paper said its sources claim the matter was included in the President’s Daily Brief at some point:
One senior administration official offered a similar explanation, saying that Mr. Trump was not briefed because the intelligence agencies had come to no consensus on the findings.
But another official said there was broad agreement that the intelligence assessment was accurate, with some complexities because different aspects of the intelligence — including interrogations and surveillance data — resulted in some differences among agencies in how much confidence to put in each type.
Though the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, claimed on Saturday that Mr. Trump had not been briefed about the intelligence report, one American official had told The Times that the report was briefed 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 Mr. Trump to read.
Lotta slippery wording there. There was “broad agreement” that the intel was right — but disagreement about how reliable certain parts of it were? The intel was briefed “to the highest levels of the White House” — but maybe not specifically to Trump himself? And there’s only one source for that claim, it appears, just as there seems to be only one source alleging it was included in the PDB. Remember that a senior intel official told Catherine Herridge of CBS that he’s been reviewing Trump’s PDBs and can’t find anything about bounties in there.
Even so, the AP and the Times claim that POTUS was, in fact, briefed. Additionally, some of the attendees at the “high-level” interagency meeting held at the White House in late March on the bounties were apparently sufficiently convinced by the intelligence that they wanted to go to the Russians with it:
The meeting led to broader discussions about possible responses to the Russian action, ranging from diplomatic expressions of disapproval and warnings, to sanctions, according to two of the people. These people and others who discussed the matter spoke on the condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity.
The disturbing intelligence — which the CIA was tasked with reviewing, and later confirmed — generated disagreement about the appropriate path forward, a senior U.S. official said. The administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, preferred confronting the Russians directly about the matter, while some National Security Council officials in charge of Russia were more dismissive of taking immediate action, the official said.
Whatever the status of the intel in March, it’s now developed to the point that it was shared with British officials “recently.” Quote: “British security officials have confirmed to Sky News that the reports about the plot are true.” As WaPo’s source up above put it, the question for Trump and Boris Johnson at the moment is, “now that you are aware of it, what are you going to do about it?”
We’ll know more soon about how solid the intelligence is and, maybe, what Trump knew about it and when. Pelosi sent a letter this morning to John Ratcliffe and Gina Haspel requesting a House-wide briefing “immediately” on the matter, specifically the issue of “was the President briefed, and if not, why not, and why was Congress not briefed.” She’s going to get her wish: Kayleigh McEnany told Fox that that briefing will be happening later today. Stay tuned.