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The credibility of last summer’s bombshell report alleging the Russian government was paying bounties to Taliban fighters to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan took another hit this week when a senior Biden administration official told reporters they only have “low-to-moderate confidence” in the intelligence behind the story.
The intelligence was based on notoriously unreliable “detainee reporting,” the official said on the call, meaning that it came from militants looking to get out of jail.
News of the alleged bounties was first reported last June by The New York Times, which reported that “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.” The story, based entirely on unidentified sources, claimed that the U.S. had actually known about the alleged bounties for months.
Media outlets across the country rushed to find their own anonymous sources to “confirm” the story. Then-President Donald Trump called it “fake news” and a “Hoax started to slander me & the Republican Party.” He denied that he’d been briefed on it, and did not discuss the alleged bounties on a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July.
Democrats jumped on the report and used it to attack Trump in the run-up to the 2020 election. Joe Biden said Trump’s “entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale. It’s betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way.” House speaker Nancy Pelosi said “This is as bad as it gets,” and John Kerry weighed in at the Democratic Convention, saying that Trump did “nothing about Russia putting a bounty on our troops.”
An article by Fred Kaplan in Slate called Trump’s handling of the issue “inexcusable,” and said he and his senior advisors “come off looking very bad – immoral, vaguely traitorous, astoundingly incompetent, or all three.” The Daily Beast reported the Russian Bounty “mess” was “all of Trump’s scandals rolled into one,” and that Trump put America’s enemies before his country.
But the evidence behind the alleged bounties was always weak, and there was no definitive link to the deaths of any U.S. troops. In September, NBC News interviewed General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, who said a detailed review of all of the available intelligence was not able to corroborate the existence of a Russian program offering bounties. Contrary to The New York Times, which reported that American intelligence officials had concluded the Russian bounty allegations were true, McKenzie told NBC that the story “has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me.”
“We continue to look for that evidence,” he told NBC News. “I just haven’t seen it yet.”
The Biden administration hasn’t deemed the Russian bounty allegations completely false. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday that while it was important for the intelligence community to look into the allegations, “it’s challenging to gather this intelligence and this data.” The senior official speaking to the press this week suggested that the burden now is on the Russian government to explain its actions.
Sanctions the Biden administration placed on Russia Thursday were not tied to the bounty allegations, the official said.