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Biden admin walks back claims of Russian bounties on US troops in Afghanistan

3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers clear a village in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Sept. 12, 2019. (U.S. Army photo/Released)
April 15, 2021

An official in President Joe Biden’s administration announced on Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community now has “low to moderate confidence” in claims that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to attack U.S. troops, casting doubt on the claim used to criticize then-President Donald Trump during the 2020 presidential election.

A senior administration official told reporters during a Thursday National Security Council (NSC) press call, “The United States Intelligence Community assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, including through financial incentives and compensation.”

The confidence level of the assessment “relies on detainee reporting and due to the challenging operating environment in Afghanistan,” the senior administration official said.

The New York Times first reported in June 2020 that a Russian intelligence group secretly offered the Taliban rewards for killing U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, a claim based on the accounts of unnamed intelligence officials. The Times further reported that Trump had been briefed on the bounty claims and had been presented with a range of potential responses, but declined to act.

The Times’ report gave rise to Democrat attacks on Trump. Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) criticized the Trump administration for its reported inaction. Smith said, “If the reports are true, that the Administration knew about this Russian operation and did nothing, they have broken the trust of those who serve and the commitment to their families to ensure their loved one’s safety.”

After the Times’ report, then-candidate Biden told NBC at the time, “Not only has [Trump] failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before [Russian President Vladimir Putin].”

Trump and former-acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell denied being briefed about the bounty allegations, and the Pentagon said it was continuing to evaluate the bounty reports but said it had “no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations.”

In September, nearly three months after the Times’ report, Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said the bounty allegations still had “not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me.”

Despite the continued lack of corroboration, Biden again attacked Trump over the bounty allegations at the first 2020 presidential debate in September. Biden said Trump is “Putin’s puppy” adding, “He still refuses to even say anything to Putin about the bounty on the heads of American soldiers.”

U.S. intelligence officials have previously been duped by unreliable detainee reporting.

Ibn Shaikh al-Libi is one such example of U.S. intelligence officials being misled by detainee claims. Al-Libi was a Libyan national captured in Afghanistan in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban. Al-Libi’s testimony advanced claims Saddam Hussien planned to provide chemical weapons and training to Al Qaeda. Hussien’s alleged actions involving chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction were used as a justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A 2006 U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report states, “Postwar findings support the DIA February 2002 assessment that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi was likely intentionally misleading his debriefers when he said that Iraq provided two al-Qa’ida associates with chemical and biological weapons (CBW) training in 2000.”

While the Biden administration official described the “low to moderate” confidence in the intelligence supporting the Russian bounty allegations, the White House did cite the Russian bounty allegations as the Biden administration announced a wave of new sanctions against Russia on Thursday.

In a fact sheet describing the new sanctions, the White House said, “The Administration is responding to the reports that Russia encouraged Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan based on the best assessments from the Intelligence Community (IC).”

The senior administration official told reporters, “We have noted our conclusion of the review that we conducted on the bounties issue, and we have conveyed through diplomatic, intelligence and military channels strong direct messages on this issue, but we are not specifically tying the actions we are taking today to that matter, we are tying it to the SolarWinds and election interference matters.”