Did President Trump know about U.S. intelligence community assessments that the Russians had offered bounties to the Taliban for attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan? He hasn’t so far offered a direct answer but instead shifting, manipulative responses.
That is itself troubling. It is also troubling that he has not condemned even the possibility of such Russian aggression.
But let’s step back and set aside the question of Russian bounties for a moment. For years, Russia has provided material and financial assistance to the Taliban, with what was surely the intent of supporting attacks against troops from the United States and coalition forces. Was the president aware of that?
I can answer that question: Yes, he was most certainly aware of Russian assistance to the Taliban. Despite that knowledge, he chose to do nothing.
From 2016 to 2018, I was the C.I.A.’s chief for counterterrorism in south and southwest Asia, overseeing operations and intelligence concerning Afghanistan, which included related activities of regional actors, like Russia.
“Bounty” is not a term intelligence professionals would likely use. Intelligence reporting requires precision in language to guard against the risk of misunderstanding or misinterpretation, and “bounty” lacks specificity in meaning, purpose and consequence. Intelligence professionals speak with dry, clinical facts and assessments that are not “confirmed” or “verified,” but rather corroborated to various degrees of confidence.
The goal is to provide the president with information on developments that may significantly affect U.S. interests. With this information, the president and his team can take any necessary action against potential threats. The government can’t wait for complete certainty; by then it would be too late to do anything about it.
It can therefore be semantically true that the president never received a briefing on Russian “bounties” — that specific word may not have been uttered. But the White House does not deny news reports that the President’s Daily Brief on Feb. 27 included information from our intelligence agencies in clinical terms that Russians were offering financial incentives to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition troops.