What’s the truth behind the so-called “Bountygate” story, where Russia was secretly offering bounties to radical Islamic terrorists to kill American soldiers?
Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans.
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However, the information was deemed “uncorroborated” and never advanced to President Donald Trump, CBS News’ Catherine Herridge reported.
The intelligence didn’t match the known practices and tactics of Taliban forces, U.S. intelligence officials said. The intelligence report is still being investigated.
The official said the inteligence collection report reached "low levels" NSC but did not go further, not briefed POTUS, or VP because it was deemed "uncorroborated" and "dissent intelligence community." @CBSNews
— Catherine Herridge (@CBS_Herridge) June 29, 2020
The White House also said Trump wasn’t — and still hasn’t been — briefed on the intelligence assessments because they haven’t been verified.
On Monday, national security adviser Robert O’Brien elaborated. He said that while the intelligence assessments regarding Russian bounties “have not been verified,” the administration has “been preparing should the situation warrant action.”
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Critics of the administration, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton, have questioned why Trump didn’t take punitive action against Moscow for the suspected efforts that put the lives of American service members at risk.
At times, Trump has sought throughout his time in office to improve relations with Russia and President Vladimir Putin, moving this year to try to reinstate Russia as part of a group of world leaders it had been kicked out of.
However, at times the Trump administration has also cracked down on Russian efforts to expand their power and destabilize the West.
The intelligence that surfaced in early 2019, first reported by The New York Times, indicated Russian operatives had become more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a foreign terrorist organization in 2012 during the Obama administration.
The National Security Council and the undersecretary of defense for intelligence held meetings regarding the intelligence. The NSC didn’t respond to questions about the meetings.
Late Monday, the Pentagon issued a statement saying it was evaluating the intelligence but so far had “no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations.”
“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,” said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.
Concerns about Russian bounties flared anew this year after members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known to the public as SEAL Team Six, raided a Taliban outpost and recovered roughly $500,000 in U.S. currency. The funds bolstered the suspicions of the American intelligence community that Russians had offered money to Taliban militants and linked associations.
The White House contends the president was unaware of this development, too. Trump called The New York Times report that he ignored the intelligence “fake news.”
…Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration. With Corrupt Joe Biden & Obama, Russia had a field day, taking over important parts of Ukraine – Where’s Hunter? Probably just another phony Times hit job, just like their failed Russia Hoax. Who is their “source”?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2020
The intelligence in 2019 and 2020 surrounding Russian bounties was derived in part from debriefings of captured Taliban militants. According to The Associated Press, Taliban operatives from opposite ends of the country and from separate tribes offered similar accounts.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Russian intelligence officers had offered payments to the Taliban in exchange for targeting U.S. and coalition forces.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Taliban’s chief negotiator, a spokesman for the insurgents said Tuesday, but it was unknown whether there was any mention during their conversation of allegations about Russian bounties. Pompeo pressed the insurgents to reduce violence in Afghanistan and discussed ways of advancing a U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed in February, the Taliban spokesman tweeted.
The U.S. is investigating whether Americans died because of the suspected Russian bounties. Officials are focused on an April 2019 attack on an American convoy. Three U.S. Marines were killed after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they returned to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan.
The Defense Department identified them as Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, of Newark, Delaware; Sgt. Benjamin Hines, 31, of York, Pennsylvania; and Cpl. Robert Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, New York. They were infantrymen assigned to 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, a reserve infantry unit headquartered out of Garden City, New York.
Hendriks’ father said that even a rumor of Russian bounties should have been immediately addressed.
“If this was kind of swept under the carpet as to not make it a bigger issue with Russia, and one ounce of blood was spilled when they knew this, I lost all respect for this administration and everything,” Erik Hendriks said.
Three other service members and an Afghan contractor were wounded in the attack.
As of April 2019, the attack was under a separate investigation, unrelated to the alleged Russian bounties.
The Associated Press contributed to this article