White House was warned about potential Russian bounties for killing US troops in early 2019
Posted June 30, 2020 5:27 p.m. EDT
CNN — The White House was provided with intelligence in early 2019 indicating Russian actors were offering bounties to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan, more than a year before President Donald Trump claimed he was not briefed on the same threat, according to a source familiar with the situation.
The revelation comes after the White House repeatedly denied Trump had been "personally briefed" on similar intelligence this year, claiming the assessment "wasn't verified."
But a US official familiar with the latest information told CNN on Monday that intelligence about the Russian bounties was included in the President's Daily Briefing (PDB) sometime in the spring of this year. The written document includes the intelligence communities' most important and urgent information.
Now CNN has learned that the threat was mentioned in intelligence reports provided to the National Security Council more than a year ago.
At that time, it was not clear which Russian-linked group or entity was making the offer, if the Taliban had accepted or whether the bounties were linked to any attacks on US troops, the source said.
But it did provide an indication that intelligence officials were already aware of Russia's effort to indirectly target US and coalition troops in Afghanistan, one of several threat streams that were being monitored as tensions between the two countries escalated over the poisoning of Sergi Skripal, an ex-spy in the United Kingdom, the source said.
The news further undermines the White House's assertion that Trump was not "briefed" on the matter and will likely increase the pressure coming from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are already calling on senior administration officials to testify about what they knew, and when.
The reports were passed to top officials at the National Security Council, including former national security adviser John Bolton, who would have ultimately decided whether or not to brief the President on the matter, the source said, adding that they did not know whether he had chosen to do so.
But Bolton was aware of the reports, according to this source. Multiple sources have told CNN that Bolton is a veracious consumer of intelligence.
The NSC was not made aware of additional intelligence related to the Russian bounties in the later months of 2019, according to a former senior NSC official. The gap indicates there was a period of time when there was not any new intelligence on the matter deemed significant enough for the NSC and Trump to be made aware.
New intelligence emerged in early 2020
However, the situation changed in early 2020 when new intelligence emerged, detailing how the Russian actors offering the bounties were officers from the Russian intelligence unit, the GRU. That information was included in Trump's PDB.
"Intelligence comes to the NSC in several ways, the PDB is just one of them," according to CNN national security analyst Sam Vinograd, who served on the NSC during the Obama administration.
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 additional photos and charts to make it more appealing, the document often goes unread, according to people familiar with the matter.
"The intel directorate is involved in flagging key threat streams to the national security adviser, as are other relevant directorates," Vinograd said.
The national security adviser is both a filter for intelligence his team receives and a gatekeeper when it comes to intelligence getting to the president from other members of the national security team, Vinograd added, noting that they are ultimately responsible for ensuring the president knows what he needs to know.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on whether the White House had received intelligence about the potential Russian bounties in early 2019.
The NSC and a spokesperson for Bolton did not respond to CNN's request for comment.
On Monday night, The New York Times reported that the information had been included in a written briefing to the President in late February.
The Associated Press was first to report on the existence of this intelligence in 2019. The AP also reported that the Russian bounty threat was in Trump's PBD in 2019 and that Bolton had briefed Trump on it in March of 2019.
"I responded no comment and that is what I will do with you," Bolton said this morning during an interview on WCBS 880 when asked about the AP report. Bolton cited the fact that he did not want to reveal classified information.
"I do not want to get into the specifics," Bolton said when asked if the threat was known in the highest circles of national security in Washington. He added that the problem is Trump's policy given that the Taliban have not kept an agreement with the US in 20 years.
On the substance of the issue "the Russians have wanted us out of Afghanistan for a long time," Bolton said.
The Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Monday called the reports of Russian intelligence officers offering money to Taliban militants in Afghanistan as a reward for killing US or UK troops "a hoax" and "a lie," in the Kremlin's first statements following the growing furor in Washington over the matter.
"First of all, these assertions are a lie. Secondly, if the US special services still report to the President, then I suggest [you] proceed from the corresponding statements of President Trump, who has already given his assessment to these reports," Peskov said in a conference call with reporters when asked to comment on the reports.
Congress wants answers
GOP lawmakers who were briefed on the intelligence Monday at the White House were told that the intelligence in question was from this year, according to a congressional aide, who also made clear that members had not independently verified that claim and it was simply what the administration had told them.
A group of House Democrats were briefed on Afghanistan intelligence on Tuesday but Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said administration officials did not provide any new information, saying it was essentially "White House personnel telling us their perspective."
"We did not receive any new substantive information," Hoyer said during a news conference after the briefing. He added that he would have preferred the briefing be delivered by intelligence officials.
He said the intelligence is "very, very troubling" and pushed back on the suggestion made by both Trump and Peskov that it is a hoax.
"Nothing in this briefing that we've just received led me to believe it is a hoax," Hoyer said. "There may be different judgments as to the level of credibility, but there's no assertion that the information we had was a hoax."
He reiterated Democratic leaders' call for a full briefing for members of Congress from the intelligence community to discuss their assessment of the veracity of the intelligence.
Meanwhile, Democrats in both the House and Senate have made clear they intend to push the administration for answers related to which officials had knowledge of the intelligence and when they became aware of it.
Top Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday requesting answers about their knowledge of the intelligence, according to a copy of the correspondence obtained by CNN.
The letter, co-signed by Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Dick Durbin of Illinois, also asks Esper and Pompeo to explain why several decisions made by Trump in the time since the information was included in his daily briefing "clearly support the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin, while putting US service members at unnecessary risk."
It also includes a request for members of Trump's Cabinet to appear before the Senate in coming days to shed light on their knowledge of the reported Russian bounties and answer questions about the "resulting measures" undertaken by State Department and Department of Defense in light of this intelligence.