In response to reports that Russia offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill US troops in Afghanistan, the White House has denied that President Donald Trump was “personally briefed” on the matter, claiming that the intelligence “wasn’t verified.”
But a US official familiar with the latest information told CNN on Monday that intelligence about the Russian bounty was included in the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB) sometime in the spring. The written document includes the intelligence communities’ most important and urgent information. On Monday night, the New York Times reported that the information was included in a written briefing to the President in late February.
Trump is not known to read his daily briefing, and instead prefers an oral briefing a few times a week.
These latest revelations come as numerous former senior intelligence officials are pushing back on the White House denials, saying it was “absurd,” “ridiculous,” and “inconceivable” that the President would not have been briefed on such critical intelligence that potentially put US soldiers in harm’s way.
On Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany repeatedly told reporters that the assessment on Russia did not reach Trump’s desk because there is “no consensus” among US spy agencies and that intelligence must be verified before it is presented to the President. On Saturday, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe put out a statement confirming that “neither the President nor the Vice President were ever briefed” on the intelligence, which was first reported by the New York Times Friday evening.
That response has incensed former members of the intelligence community. Not only should the President have been made aware of such intelligence, they say, but the notion that the President wasn’t briefed because there was a difference of opinion among intelligence agencies is “inconceivable,” said one former senior intelligence official, especially since it involved Russia.
“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.
A second former intelligence official called the notion that the President is not informed unless there is unanimity and 100% certainty “absurd.”
“You would have trouble getting unanimity on tomorrow being Tuesday,” the source told CNN on Monday.
A current administration official also said that some members of the US intelligence community feel “abandoned” by the Trump administration, particularly when it comes to Afghanistan, where the administration continues to pursue a peace deal with the Taliban.
The daily briefing
The President receives a copy of the PDB every day, as does Vice President Mike Pence, but Trump is notorious for not reading it. Even after intelligence analysts added more photos and charts to make it more appealing, the document often goes unread, according to people familiar with the matter.
Pressed Monday on whether the information was included in the PDB, McEnany said only that Trump “was not personally briefed,” insisting that the intelligence never reached him due to “dissent” within the intelligence community.
On Monday night, three top Trump administration officials, Ratcliffe, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and CIA director Gina Haspell all issued separate statements within hours of each other. None of them specifically disputed that the intelligence was provided to the President in a written briefing. Instead, they all took shots at government officials who leak classified information.
“To those government officials who betray the trust of the people of the United States by leaking classified information, your actions endanger our national security,” wrote O’Brien. “No matter the motivation, there is never a justification for such conduct.
Ratcliffe wrote that leaks on the Russia bounty intelligence “places our forces at risk” and is a crime. That was followed quickly by a rare on-the-record statement by Haspel saying, “Leaks compromise and disrupt the critical interagency work to collect, assess, and ascribe culpability.”
“CIA will continue to pursue every lead; analyze the information we collect with critical, objective eyes; and brief reliable intelligence to protect U.S. forces deployed around the world,” she added.
Intelligence vs facts
Multiple former senior intelligence officials dismissed the White House’s notion that intelligence would not reach the President simply because of dissent or because it hadn’t been verified.
“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.
“Presidents are briefed on credible intelligence based on the best validation of the information we can provide, said one former senior intelligence official. “It’s not a Court of law, it’s an intelligence briefing.”
Intelligence agents constantly make analytical judgments in the absence of absolute confirmation, the official said, adding that when the lives of US service men and women may be at stake, “we have an absolute duty to warn while we are attempting to validate the quality of the reporting.”
Since the intelligence failures of the Iraq War, assessments now more explicitly lay out the level of confidence that various agencies have in the intelligence being reported, said another former senior official, adding that if the President was briefed only on things that were 100% certain, “his PDB would be very thin.”
Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who oversaw operations in Europe and Russia before retiring last summer, said it appeared that the Trump administration was “playing verbal gymnastics with the bounty issue” from Trump’s Sunday night tweet, to McEnany’s comments to the statement from Ratcliffe on Monday night.
“They are peeling back the onion, from denial to acknowledgment,” said Polymeropoulos. “There seems to be little question that multiple streams of the raw intelligence was credible, with only a question of a need for further corroboration.”
Who else knew?
It’s unclear how widely the intelligence was shared inside the National Security Council at the White House. On Saturday, Richard Grenell, who served as the acting-Director of National Intelligence before Ratcliffe was confirmed in May, tweeted, “I never heard this,” in reference to the reports.
Intelligence of this nature would normally be shared with top lawmakers on Capitol Hill who make up the “Gang of Eight.”
On Monday, eight GOP lawmakers were briefed on the matter at the White House. Among them was Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on House Armed Services Committee, who indicated that he agreed with the idea that Trump should have been briefed, even if the intelligence was not completely verified.
“What the President and the DNI have said is that the President was not briefed, which to me is a very concerning statement,” Thornberry told reporters. “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.”
The US official familiar with the latest information told CNN that intelligence of this nature, with risk to US troops, should be assumed to be true until it is otherwise disproven.
Multiple former senior intelligence officials also said they were stunned that this threat had not been mentioned in intelligence products at a lower level than the PDB, which are routinely shared with oversight committees on Capitol Hill, and, at very least, the Gang of Eight.
One of those former senior intelligence officials told CNN that in a normal administration, “someone would have been ordered to get on a plane and tell the Russians to cut it out.”
“That doesn’t seem to have happened here. Why not? And why wasn’t Congress briefed?” the official said.
A select group of Democrats is scheduled to receive a briefing from the White House on Tuesday. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speculated as to the reason the intelligence may have been kept from Trump.
“One key question is if intelligence officials did not tell Trump about the intel that Russians offered the Taliban bounties to kill US troops because they were concerned that he would tell Putin,” Pelosi said.
A senior Republican official echoed that point, telling CNN: If he wasn’t briefed, why wasn’t he briefed. Did his staff know he didn’t want to hear anything about Russia? Is this about making a deal with the Taliban? Why do all roads lead to Russia?”
Trump and the intelligence community
The episode is another chink in the relationship between Trump and the nation’s intelligence agencies, one that’s been fraught since before he entered office, particularly on matters involving Russia. Trump has questioned the loyalty of those in charge of intelligence agencies, some of whom he alleges are “deep state” operatives meant to undermine him.
The whistleblower complaint from an intelligence official which led to the impeachment inquiry only deepened Trump’s skepticism.
The lingering distrust has proven an obstacle in relaying critical information gathered by those agencies to the President, people familiar with the matter said. Trump has suggested in briefings that he does not believe some of what he is told by intelligence briefers, and in other settings has downplayed conclusions about intelligence presented to him by senior officials.
That has been especially true with matters involving Russia’s election interference, an issue that some inside the White House say has proven so highly charged that it is rarely raised with Trump.
Instead of reading his daily briefing, Trump prefers an oral briefing a few times a week. But even in those sessions, participants have described him as distracted.
“I didn’t think these briefings were terribly useful, and neither did the intelligence community, since much of the time was spent listening to Trump rather than Trump listening to the briefers,” Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton wrote in his memoir released last week.
Because Trump seems to absorb information through in-person meetings, the responsibility of highlighting what he needs to know has fallen inordinately upon on his national security advisers.
The man currently in the position, O’Brien, maintains a low profile and focuses on Trump’s wishes, rather than influencing them. His approach has concerned some current and former administration officials, who fear he may not flag the important intelligence Trump needs to know about.
“This entire episode falls on the feet of national security adviser O’Brien, who has the most daily access to the President,” said Polymeropoulos, the former CIA officer. Given his access to the President, O’Brien should have been able to discuss the issue with President on numerous occasions, said Polymerodpoulos. “Especially if there was consideration in inviting Putin to the G7.”
State of negotiations with the Taliban
The episode also comes at a delicate time for the US presence in Afghanistan. After years of negotiations, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban earlier this year committing to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by next year.
Last week, CNN reported on the administration’s plan for the US to withdraw more than 4,000 US troops from Afghanistan by the fall – bringing the level from 8,600 to 4,500 – and that plan is still expected to remain intact, but one of the sources added that the timeframe for finalizing this plan could be delayed due to the reporting in the last few days.
Over the weekend, the top US envoy for negotiations with the Taliban departed on another trip to Doha, where he has regularly met with Taliban leadership over the last year.
The visit by Zalmay Khalilizad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, sent a signal that the US-Taliban dialogue is continuing, unhindered.
The State Department did not reply when asked if Khalilizad would bring up the Russian bounties in this round of meetings with the Taliban, or if he has ever broached the topic in previous meetings.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also spoke with Taliban leadership.
Amid planning for the drawdown, there have been instances when the US has appeared to hold back its criticism of the Taliban.
A Pentagon report found the insurgent group increased the ferocity of its attacks in the month following the signing of the agreement with the US. This year the Taliban has carried out deadly attacks on the Afghan government and civilians, but it has not targeted US troops which it agreed it would not do in the US-Taliban deal.
Trump has also routinely encouraged Russia to take on a larger role in Afghanistan, a point Democrats have been quick to point out in the wake of the latest controversy.
Trump’s Democratic challenger in the 2020 presidential race, former Vice President Joe Biden, said the lack of response from the current administration is part of a broader trend.
“I don’t have all the details. But I don’t need the details to know how (Mr. Trump) has cozied up to Putin from the very beginning, giving Putin a standing that he does not deserve, undercutting our alliances in Europe and other parts of the world,” Biden said.