- The Trump administration is under pressure amid reports that the White House failed to take action after being briefed on intelligence showing that Russia paid Taliban-linked militants secret bounties to kill American troops.
- The White House pushed back on the reports, saying the president was never briefed on the intelligence because there was dissent within the intelligence community about its credibility.
- The White House’s claim that this information was not conveyed to Trump because there wasn’t a consensus on its credibility is “horses—,” Steve Hall, the CIA’s former chief of Russia operations, told Insider.
- If the White House claim is true, it would be a catastrophic failure on the part of the intelligence community and amount to “dereliction of duty,” a former CIA analyst told Insider.
- The other possibility, Hall said, is “whether the topic of Russia has become so radioactive in this administration, dating back to the 2016 election, that it can’t even be raised with Trump because he just goes bonkers or shuts down.”
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The Trump administration is under scrutiny after an explosive New York Times report said President Donald Trump took no action after being briefed on US intelligence showing Russia offered and secretly paid Taliban-linked militants bounties to kill US troops.
The White House denies Trump knew anything about it, saying he was not briefed on the intelligence because officials disagreed on its veracity.
Steve Hall, the former chief of Russia operations at the CIA, told Insider the White House’s claim is “horses—” because threat intelligence is treated very differently from other types of sensitive intelligence.
“Ever since 9/11, any time you get any type of counterterrorism or threat reporting that speaks to whether Americans are going to get killed, that sort of information travels extremely quickly and doesn’t have to be vetted,” Hall said. “And that’s all right because the outcome could be horrific. You could have Americans killed.”
If the underlying intelligence is questionable, or if there’s a debate on its credibility, “you convey that as well, but the one thing you don’t do – and you’re taught this as an intelligence officer from the very beginning – is just write it off,” Hall said. “It would be intelligence malpractice for anybody in the IC to look at something like this that could result in Americans dying and say, ‘We haven’t validated the source, so we can’t talk about it or brief the president about it.’ That’s just ludicrous.”
Hall was one of three CIA veterans who spoke with Insider, all of whom said they were shocked that the president was either not briefed on intelligence about a threat to deployed US troops or failed to act after learning of it.
‘The type of information that would be flagged as really important’
The Times, citing anonymous officials, reported Trump was briefed on the matter and the National Security Council discussed the information during an interagency meeting in late March.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that senior White House officials were aware of the Russian bounties as early as March 2019.
According to the AP, then-national security adviser John Bolton briefed the president on the matter, and multiple media outlets reported the intelligence was included in at least one President’s Daily Brief, a daily presentation of important intelligence on threats and opportunities.
But Trump contradicted the reports, saying over the weekend that intelligence officials told him after The Times article was published that they did not brief him on the information because they did not deem it to be credible enough to be brought to his attention.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany also said Monday that there were “dissenting opinions” within the intelligence community, meaning that the intelligence “would not be elevated” to the president “until it was verified.”
However, Rodney Faraon, a former CIA analyst who provided intelligence briefings to President Bill Clinton, told Insider: “The fact there is dissent within the intelligence community about the veracity of reporting means that the subject matter was important enough to be raised to the level of discussion between different agencies.”
Faraon added: “This is intelligence that deals with the safety and security of American troops. This is the type of information that would be flagged as really important, particularly if it came through intelligence channels.”
Katrina Mulligan, who worked on the NSC during the Obama administration, said on Twitter there is “often no consensus on intel” and that “as any NSC staffer can tell you, Presidents and their teams are often forced to make decisions in the absence of perfect information. That’s the job!”
David Priess, a former CIA officer who briefed Clinton and President George W. Bush on intelligence, expressed scepticism about Trump’s claims that he and other top officials were not briefed, writing on Twitter that if the intelligence was not considered serious enough to merit Trump’s attention, then “shame on the system.”
Insider also reported that NATO officials were aware of and briefed on the intelligence, raising further questions about why US officials would deem the information important enough to brief allies but not the president, as he’s claimed.
US Central Command told Insider on Monday that there have been no changes to the US force posture or security status in the Middle East in response to the intelligence, nor has there been an uptick in Taliban-linked attacks on US forces in the past six months.
The Pentagon said Monday night that it “has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports” but stressed that it would “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.”
‘Any normal president would be briefed’
While these developments raise questions about the credibility of the intelligence, former analysts said the president still would have been informed in any normal scenario.
John Sipher, the former deputy chief of Russia operations at the CIA, told Insider the intelligence would have been widely known to those around Trump and that “it is hard to believe that he wouldn’t be briefed.”
“This information would be known to the ambassador and senior State Department officials in Afghanistan,” he added. “The military command there would have the intelligence, as of course would the intelligence officials. This information would immediately go to all senior national security officials and the NSC. It was also sent to our allies in Afghanistan.”
“So, in this case, if the president didn’t know, it wasn’t because it was so sensitive or it wasn’t fully vetted, it was because none of those hundreds of people thought there was value in sharing it with him,” Sipher said.
“Not presenting information to the president of the United States that had direct indications of a threat to US military forces overseas, not bringing that forward, would be a dereliction of duty,” Faraon told Insider.
“Anything like this that has to do with a foreign power, particularly one with whom we are technically not at war with, threatening the lives of American soldiers overseas, that is at the top of the list,” he said.
That said, national security veterans pointed to Bolton’s book and multiple media reports saying the president often does not pay attention during briefings, does not read the President’s Daily Brief, and frequently loses interest in the discussion unless he sees or hears his name.
“Any normal president would be briefed,” Sipher said. “Any normal president would want to know the latest intelligence. Trump has never shown any interest in governing.”
He added, “It is possible that very little of consequence is passed to the president until they believe he is ready to hear it, and they have had time to prepare him. Of course, in many ways this is worse than having been briefed on the information and done nothing.”
Hall largely agreed.
“If you run through all the possible explanations for this, there is no reasonable scenario in which this isn’t horrific,” he said.
If Trump was briefed, and he’s misleading the public or doesn’t remember being briefed, Hall said, “then that’s pretty horrific too because it means the president has difficulty paying attention to threats against American soldiers.”
If Trump was not briefed, as he’s claimed, “then you have an incredibly bad system in place if that kind of critical information isn’t making it to the president,” Hall said.
“And then finally, coming down to the narrowest point of all this is whether the topic of Russia has become so radioactive in this administration, dating back to the 2016 election, that it can’t even be raised with Trump because he just goes bonkers or shuts down,” he said.
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