A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Nearly a week has passed since The New York Times published a story titled “Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says.”
The fallout has been coming ever since. Congressional leaders were briefed by intelligence leaders on Thursday. Afterward, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer said “our Armed Forces would be better served if President Trump spent more time reading his daily briefing and less time planning military parades and defending relics of the Confederacy.”
In the past week this scandal has inspired the famous Kayleigh McEnany line “the president does read;” sparked criticism from all manner of intelligence professionals about the president’s ignorance; and renewed questions about why he seems so soft on Russia. Trump and McEnany and their media allies have denounced the leaks to The Times (which have been matched by numerous other outlets including CNN). So let’s take a closer look at the leaks. What can we discern?
Here is a possibility: The internal government system for whistleblowers is so broken that concerned officials went to The Times to blow the whistle instead.
Times national security correspondent and CNN contributor David Sanger says that’s a valid theory.
“If there was a whistleblower/Inspector General system that intelligence and Pentagon officials trusted, this story might well have not leaked,” Sanger told me. “But because President Trump has dismantled or politicized much of that system, those who want to make clear that the President has ignored the intelligence may have felt they had no choice but to come to the press.”
Sanger said that the president’s determination to ax the “deep state” – driven in part by pro-Trump media’s daily attacks against the bureaucracy, I might add – has potentially accelerated the leaking that’s going on.
Many government officials would argue that the leaks are damaging to national security. Many reporters, myself included, would argue that the leaks are a net positive – because the bounty story has a lot more legs this way.
Three key points
I want to flag three points from Sanger and Eric Schmitt’s followup story for The Times:
- “The nature of intelligence — always incomplete and not always definitive — gives Mr. Trump an opening to dismiss anything that challenges his worldview.”
- “It doesn’t require a top-secret clearance and access to the government’s most classified information to see that the list of Russian aggressions in recent weeks rivals some of the worst days of the Cold War.”
- “Even Russian state television now regularly mocks Mr. Trump as a buffoon, very different from its gushing tone during the 2016 presidential election.”
“The real Russia hoax”
Peter Bergen is out with a brand new column for CNN Opinion. He writes: “Trump has termed the richly reported stories that the Russians paid Afghan militants bounties to kill US soldiers based in Afghanistan a ‘hoax.’ But the real hoax is how White House officials are covering up for Trump’s incompetence as commander in chief…”
The PDB problem
A few days ago AdWeek reporter Scott Nover observed that “all things come back to the ‘Trump doesn’t read anything’ storyline we established early in Season 1.” The White House’s denials notwithstanding, he has a point.
“I didn’t see, in 17 months, any evidence the president read the PDB itself,” John Bolton told Jake Tapper on CNN Thursday afternoon, referring to the President’s Daily Brief. So Trump should have been verbally told about the information, even if there was uncertainty. Yes — but can anyone possibly defend the president’s choice not to read the CIA’s daily assessment?
In the interview with Tapper, Bolton also said he had been on the receiving end of Trump’s anger about Russia-related intel.
“I think I have enough scars from bringing up things about Russia that he probably didn’t want to hear, that I can say I agree with” others’ accounts of that dynamic, Bolton said.