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Pentagon says ‘no corroborating evidence’ of Russian bounties on US troops as media claims increase

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, right, delivers remarks on the Coronavirus pandemic as President Donald Trump looks on in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 18, 2020. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Sipa USA/TNS)
June 30, 2020

The Department of Defense is the latest in the Trump administration to denounce a New York Times report alleging that Russian military spies had placed bounties with the Taliban for the death of U.S. troops.

“The Department of Defense continues to evaluate intelligence that Russian GRU operatives were engaged in malign activity against United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan.  To date, DOD has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports. Regardless, we always take the safety and security of our forces in Afghanistan – and around the world – most seriously and therefore continuously adopt measures to prevent harm from potential threats,” Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a late Monday night statement provided to American Military News.

The statement is the DOD’s first on the alleged intelligence.

The NYT report on Friday, citing “officials close to the matter,” said the Russian military intelligence unit had given the Taliban bounty money for successful attacks on coalition forces. At least some of the U.S. intelligence officials’ findings are based on information extracted from captured Afghan militants, the report said.

The Russian intelligence unit has been linked to previous assassination attempts, as well as destabilization efforts in Europe and revenge attacks. However, it is the first reported instance of Russian intelligence facilitating attacks on U.S. troops.

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One attack on U.S. troops that is suspected to have involved Russian bounties took place in April 2019 and resulted in the death of three U.S. Marines, the NYT stated in a follow-up report, citing anonymous sources. The sources told NYT that President Donald Trump received a written briefing on the intelligence on or around February 27 this year.

Anonymous officials also told The Associated Press that Trump was briefed on the matter in March 2019 by then-national security adviser John Bolton.

Trump said on Monday he was never briefed on the alleged intelligence because it was not found to be credible.

In a tweet on Sunday night, Trump said, “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP. Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks, wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!”

Then-Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell also said he never heard of the alleged Russian bounties.

“I never heard this. And it’s disgusting how you continue to politicize intelligence. You clearly don’t understand how raw intel gets verified. Leaks of partial information to reporters from anonymous sources is dangerous because people like you manipulate it for political gain,” Grenell shot back at California Rep. Ted Lieu, who accused Grenell of withholding the information.

Trump retweeted Grenell’s reply and called on NYT to reveal its source for the report.

“The Fake News @ nytimes must reveal its “anonymous” source. Bet they can’t do it, this “person” probably does not even exist!” Trump said.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe also confirmed that Trump and Vice President Pence were never briefed on the information, and called the NYT report “inaccurate.”

“I have confirmed that neither the President nor the Vice President were ever briefed on any intelligence alleged by the New York Times in its reporting yesterday,” Ratcliffe said. “The White House statement addressing this issue earlier today, which denied such a briefing occurred, was accurate. The New York Times reporting, and all other subsequent news reports about such an alleged briefing are inaccurate.”

In 2019, 20 Americans were killed in combat incidents in Afghanistan.