“The US intelligence community assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against US coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, including through financial incentives and compensation,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters on Thursday.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed the new assessment in a press briefing, saying reports on the bounties “were enough of a cause of concern that we wanted our intelligence community to look into” the matter. That assessment found “low to moderate confidence” that the allegations were true, she said.
The latest official view marks a sharp contrast to last June, when the New York Times reported as fact – based on anonymous sourcing – that Russia had offered such bounties for Taliban-linked militants to attack US forces. Other outlets “confirmed” the report – which in mainstream-media-speak means that anonymous sources reiterated the allegations to them, not that anything was verified to be true.
With election season heating up, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and other politicians used the issue to bludgeon President Trump for failing to punish Russia. “His entire presidency has been a gift to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, but this is beyond the pale,” Biden said in September. “It’s a 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.”
Asked on Thursday whether President Biden – in light of the current doubts over the allegations against Russia – regretted using the bounty story to attack Trump, Psaki said, “I’m not going to speak to the previous administration.”
Trump and members of his administration had repeatedly pointed out that the bounty allegations were unverified. While the media reporting on the issue cited unidentified “intelligence” officials, the nation’s top intelligence and military chiefs said on the record that the claims were unverified. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, among other officials, told members of Congress in July that the allegations were unconfirmed.
Months of investigation by the US military failed to yield a different answer. Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, the commander who oversees US troops in Afghanistan, said in September that the military had found nothing to corroborate the bounty allegations. At that point, the probe included a review of every attack on US troops in Afghanistan in the past several years, none of which were linked to Russian incentive payments.
And yet, even as the White House walked back the intelligence community’s assessment of the alleged bounties on Thursday, partly blaming “challenging operating environments,” Psaki suggested that Russia should still be forced to explain its conduct.
“This information really puts the burden on Russia and the Russian government to explain their engagement here,” she said. The unidentified senior official who briefed reporters added that Russia must “take steps to address this disturbing pattern of behavior,” although allegations of that behavior remain in doubt.
The new assessment was offered on the same day that Biden imposed new sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations, as well as expelling 10 Moscow diplomats. The unidentified senior official told reporters that the sanctions were for election interference and the SolarWinds hacking incident – the Kremlin has denied being involved in either case – and added that US concerns over the bounties have been conveyed to Russia in “strong direct messages” through diplomatic, intelligence, and military channels.
Observers on social media noted that the reassessment of the bounty story should further discredit MSM outlets for attacks on Trump that later proved to be false or dubious. Journalist Aaron Mate said today’s White House statements mark “another blockbuster humiliation” for “Russia-gate disinformation outlet” the Daily Beast.
CNN host Jake Tapper was another target of ridicule. “No one should be surprised that Jake Tapper was leading the charge on yet another nonsensical story fabricated by him and other resistance clowns in the media,” journalist Arthur Schwartz said on Twitter.
Schwartz also took a shot at the original purveyor of the story, tweeting: “Hey New York Times PR, you going to let the public know who lied to these reporters? Or did they make it up themselves.”
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