U.S. Intel walks back claim about Russia paying bounties for death of American soldiers (Update)

This became a huge story when it broke last summer in the NY Times:

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.

But today the Daily Beast reports that the intelligence community is now walking back that claim:

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced that U.S. intelligence only had “low to moderate” confidence in the story after all. Translated from the jargon of spyworld, that means the intelligence agencies have found the story is, at best, unproven—and possibly untrue.

“The United States intelligence community assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019 and perhaps earlier,” a senior administration official said…

According to the officials on Thursday’s call, the reporting about the alleged “bounties” came from “detainee reporting” – raising the specter that someone told their U.S.-aligned Afghan jailers what they thought was necessary to get out of a cage.

The Biden administration announced new sanctions against Russia yesterday but it was careful to point out those sanctions were in response to 2020 election interference and not to the claim about Russian bounties.

This isn’t the first time serious doubts have been raised about the story. Last September, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, told NBC News, “It just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me.” He added, “I want to know, because I won’t hesitate to take action if that’s the case. I just haven’t seen it.”

But despite the Trump administration’s denials (Trump called it a hoax), Democrats and the media jumped on this with both feet. MSNBC’s Maddowblog published a piece headlined “On Russian bounties, what did Trump know and when did he know it?

Naturally, this story was catnip for Rachel Maddow who spent years flogging the Russia story. She did a 7-minute segment on it when it broke in which she tried to make White House inaction very personal. “There are 20 American families grieving right now because their American soldier, their dad or mom or son or daughter or brother or sister, was killed in combat in Afghanistan last year,” Maddow said. She continued, “Imagine you’re a member of one of those families and you have just found out that Russia may have paid for the death of your loved one, cash money paid as a reward for killing an American soldier…And now you know…that not only does the president know that Russia was paying for Americans soldiers’ deaths, paying rewards for Americans dead. The president knows it. He’s been told. And what he’s done with that information since he was briefed on it in March is…” Maddow then referenced what she described as a “friendly conversation” with Putin.

A few days later Maddow had Susan Rice on the show to comment. “The President of the United States presumably has had access to this information for months and has done absolutely nothing about it,” Rice said. A couple days after that Maddow brought Rep. Adam Schiff on the show to discuss it further. “Americans reading this are outraged about what Russia may be doing but one person who isn’t outraged is Donald Trump and his reaction is ‘this is a hoax,'” Schiff said.

Nancy Pelosi took it a step further by suggesting Trump must be compromised: “I don’t know what the Russians have on the president politically, personally, financially or whatever it is.” Candidate Joe Biden called it “a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation, protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way.”

Here’s that ABC report highlighting the Democratic outrage. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of these folks to apologize. Below that is a similar report from CBS which notes that while the CIA was convinced this was true, the NSA was not.

Update: The Daily Caller put together a supercut of the media reaction to this story last year.