When we checked in on this story last night, the latest news via NBC was that Trump had never been briefed about Russia allegedly placing bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That contradicted reports from the AP and New York Times claiming that he was briefed at some point. Trump himself insists that he hasn’t been. Who’s lying?
The Times and the AP are both back today with new evidence alleging that he’s known about it, or should have known about it, for awhile. A long while, per the AP:
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…
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.
John Bolton? Wasn’t Bolton asked specifically a few days ago on CNN whether he believed Trump had been briefed about the Russian bounties? Why didn’t he mention this then?
John Bolton reacts to Pres. Trump's denial he was briefed on Russia offering bounties to kill coalition forces: "This is part of the problem with President Trump's decision-making in the national security space. It is just unconnected to the reality he's dealing with" #CNNSOTU pic.twitter.com/ZNvPtWOi4h
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) June 28, 2020
Bolton described himself in that interview as “puzzled” by Trump’s tweet claiming that he didn’t know anything about this and hinted that the whole matter sounded like a story that could have been included in his book. Was that his way of hinting that it’s true? Remember that he’s in the DOJ’s crosshairs right now for possibly having leaked classified information in his book. He might have been wary of confirming anything about the Russian bounties to CNN for fear of strengthening the DOJ’s case against him.
Anyway. If it’s true that the White House has had suspicions about Russia targeting American soldiers for more than a year, it makes it that much harder to believe that Trump was never informed. That’s where the Times comes in, insisting that the matter was mentioned in two separate intelligence circulars within the last few months — including the President’s Daily Brief, on a specific date:
But that stance clashed with the disclosure by two officials that the intelligence was included months ago in Mr. Trump’s President’s Daily Brief document — a compilation of the government’s latest secrets and best insights about foreign policy and national security that is prepared for him to read. One of the officials said the item appeared in Mr. Trump’s brief in late February; the other cited Feb. 27, specifically.
Moreover, a description of the intelligence assessment that the Russian unit had carried out the bounties plot was also seen as serious and solid enough to disseminate more broadly across the intelligence community in a May 4 article in the C.I.A.’s World Intelligence Review, a classified compendium commonly referred to as The Wire, two officials said.
On Sunday Catherine Herridge of CBS was told by a senior intelligence official that he’d been reviewing archived versions of the PDB and couldn’t find anything in there about Russian bounties. Had he not reached the February 27 edition yet in his review? Or was the Times given bad information about this? It’s very specific info, easily confirmed or disproved by people with access to the documents. We should know more soon.
Assuming that the Times is right and that the matter was included in the PDB in late February, how could Trump have missed it? That’s simple: “Mr. Trump is said to often neglect reading that document, preferring instead to receive an oral briefing summarizing highlights every few days,” the Times notes. His disinterest in the Daily Brief, one of the most fascinating intelligence documents in the world, was also noted a few months ago amid fingerpointing about why the feds didn’t move sooner to address the coronavirus epidemic when it was percolating in China early this year. Supposedly the progress of China’s outbreak was covered in more than a dozen separate editions of the PDB. “But the alarms appear to have failed to register with the president,” wrote WaPo in late April, “who routinely skips reading the PDB and has at times shown little patience for even the oral summary he takes two or three times per week, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified material.”
They reported the same thing in February 2018, when the pandemic was still years away. “He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief,” WaPo claimed, which “could hamper his ability to respond to crises in the most effective manner, intelligence experts warned.” More recently, the Times reported that “He has a short attention span and rarely, if ever, reads intelligence reports, relying instead on conservative media and his friends for information.” That may help explain why Trump is still insisting that he’s never been briefed on the Russian bounties. Fine, sure, it was in the PDB, but you can’t expect him to actually do his homework, even if that homework is a compendium of the most sensitive information about foreign threats known to the U.S. government. That’s not a “briefing.” If you want to “brief” him, you have to tell him.
Which Bolton did, according to the AP. Stay tuned about that.
It’s not just the Times claiming today that the bounty matter was mentioned in the PDB. CNN’s sources say so too. But how did it make it into that document if, as NBC claimed last night, the intel was “not corroborated broadly” and that officials disagreed “about the implications and significance of the plot”? Well, for starters, it’s a matter of dispute whether the intel was strong or weak. (Isn’t it always?) Various officials from John Ratcliffe to Gina Haspel to the National Security Council put out statements last night stressing that the bounty matter is still being investigated, suggesting that it’s sketchy and maybe not worth Trump’s time. But “current and former intelligence officials familiar with the intelligence” told WaPo that the evidence is “less ambiguous than White House officials and some lawmakers have portrayed.” And various former intel officials told CNN that it’s not unusual for the president to be briefed on info that hasn’t been corroborated yet. That’s the nature of intelligence, after all. Rarely do you have smoking-gun proof of what you suspect:
“That’s ridiculous,” the former official said about the White House’s claim, adding that it is “hard to believe” the intelligence community shared what it was hearing about Russia with allies like the British and not at least inform the President that it was a thread they were following…
“You don’t put things in the President’s daily brief only when they are completely corroborated and verified because then it is not intelligence anymore; then it’s fact,” David Priess, a former CIA officer during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, told CNN in an interview on Monday.
Larry Pfeiffer, former CIA chief of staff who also served as senior director of the White House Situation Room, said intelligence rarely operates in the world of black and white. Instead, agents and officials often craft “assessments with assigned levels of confidence,” which are “often presented with dissenting views,” said Pfeiffer.
The 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden was based on intelligence that some characterized as 50-50, Pfeiffer added.
Notably, the Republican ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, also finds it “very concerning” that Trump wouldn’t have been briefed about an allegation as serious as this: “Anything with any hint of credibility that would endanger our service members, much less put a bounty on their lives, to me should have been briefed immediately to the commander in chief and a plan to deal with that situation.”
Maybe he was briefed by Bolton, though. The question is: If in fact the subject was included in the PDB on February 27, why did none of his in-person briefers mention it to him in their in-person sessions (or did they?). I ask that not to excuse Trump for not doing his homework but to try to gauge how seriously the IC was taking this story. Thornberry seems to think, appropriately, that it’d be a matter of urgent concern even if the evidence wasn’t rock solid. Matters of urgent concern would logically come up in the president’s in-person briefings. Did they?
Exit question: What’s Trump’s best spin if it’s confirmed that the bounties were included in the February 27 PDB? “I didn’t read it”? “I forgot”? Not great either way. What if Bolton testifies before the House (in closed session) that yes, he did brief Trump on it awhile back?