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Spies and commandos warned months ago of Russian gifts to US troops

WASHINGTON – U.S. intelligence officials and special operations forces in Afghanistan have warned their superiors as early as January of a suspected Russian plot to pay bounty to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan, officials said question.

Crucial information that led spies and commandos to focus on gifts included recovering a large amount of American money from a raid on a Taliban outpost that raised suspicions. The interrogations of captured militants and criminals played a central role in making the intelligence community confident in its assessment that the Russians had offered and paid for gifts in 201

9, another official said.

Armed with this information, military and secret service officials have been examining victims of American and other coalition fighting since the beginning of last year to determine if there were victims of the plot. Four Americans were killed in combat in early 2020, but the Taliban have not attacked American positions since a February deal to end the long-running war in Afghanistan.

Details added to the classified intelligence assessment framework, which the New York Times reported on Friday has been under discussion within the Trump administration since at least March, and emerged as the White House faced a growing chorus of Sunday’s criticisms of his apparent failure to authorize a response to Russia.

Mr. Trump defended himself by denying The Times reports that he had been briefed on intelligence, expanding on a similar White House refutation the day before. But congressional Democrats and some Republicans have asked for a response from Russia which, according to officials, the administration has not yet authorized.

The president “must immediately expose and manage this, and stop Russia’s shadow war”, Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, written on Twitter.

Appearing on the ABC “This Week” program, the rapporteur Nancy Pelosi said she had not been informed of the intelligence assessment and requested an immediate report from Congress. He accused Mr. Trump of wanting to “ignore” any accusations against Russia.

“Russia has never overcome the humiliation they suffered in Afghanistan, and now they are carrying it on us, our troops,” he said of the bloody war of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. “This is totally outrageous. You would think that the moment the president heard about it, he would have liked to know more instead of denying he knew something. “

C.I.A. spokesmen, the director of national intelligence and the Pentagon declined to comment on the new findings. A spokesman for the National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Although White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Saturday that Trump had not been informed of the intelligence report, an American official had told the Times that the report had been informed at the highest levels of the White House. Another said it was included in the President’s Daily Brief, a compendium of foreign policy and national security intelligence compiled for Mr. Trump’s reading.

Ms McEnany did not contest the Times report on the existence of the intelligence assessment, a meeting of the National Security Council security committee in late March and the inaction of the White House. Several other news organizations subsequently reported on the evaluation.

Officials informed on the matter said that the assessment had been treated as a tightly held secret, but that the administration has expanded its briefings over the past week – including sharing information about it with the British government, whose forces were among what are said to be targeted.

Republicans in Congress asked the Trump administration for more information on what happened and how the White House planned to respond.

Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-rate home republican, said in a post on Twitter Sunday: “If the news about Russian gifts on US forces is true, the White House must explain: 1. Why was the president or vice president not informed? Was the information in the PDB? 2. Who knew and when? 3. What has been done in response to the protection of our forces and Putin’s responsibility? “

More Republicans have retweeted Ms. Cheney’s post. Representative Daniel Crenshaw, a Texas Republican and former member of the Navy SEALs, amplified his message, tweeting, “We need answers.”

In a statement in response to questions, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the leader of the majority, said he had long warned of Russia’s work to undermine American interests in the Middle East and Southwest Asia and noted that the last year he wrote an amendment reproaching mr. Trump withdrawing forces from Syria and Afghanistan.

“The United States must prioritize defense resources, maintain a sufficient regional military presence and continue to impose serious consequences on those who threaten us and our allies, such as our attacks on Syria and Afghanistan against ISIS, the Taliban and the Russian mercenary forces that threatened our partner, “said McConnell.

Aides from other prominent Republicans declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday, including Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the highest Republican in the House; Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the interim president of the Senate Intelligence Committee; and Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, president of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In addition to saying that he was never “informed or informed” of the intelligence report – a wording that went beyond the White House’s denial of any formal briefings – Mr. Trump also question on the credibility of the assessment, which the statements of his subordinates did not have.

In particular, he described the intelligence report as “about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by the Russians”; the report described gifts paid to Taliban militants by Russian military intelligence officers, not direct attacks. Trump also suggested that developments could be a “hoax” and questioned the existence of Times sources – government officials who spoke of the condition of anonymity -.

Mr. Trump then pivoted to attack former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr., who criticized the president on Saturday for not punishing Russia for offering gifts to the Taliban, as well as Mr. Biden’s son Hunter. which is the target of unsubstantiated claims that he helped a Ukrainian energy company ingratiate himself with the Obama administration when his father was vice president.

“Nobody has been tougher with Russia than the Trump Administration” Mr. Trump tweeted. “With Corrupt Joe Biden and Obama, Russia had a field day, taking over important parts of Ukraine – Where’s Hunter?”

American officials said the Russian plot to pay for gifts to Taliban fighters has been in focus in recent months after intelligence analysts and Special Operations forces have put together key evidence.

An official said that the seizure of a large amount of American money on a Taliban site has got “everyone’s attention” in Afghanistan. It was not clear when the money was recovered.

Two officials said bounty hunting information was “well known” among the intelligence community in Afghanistan, including the head of the IAC station. and other senior officials there, such as military commandos chasing the Taliban. The information was distributed in intelligence reports and highlighted in some of them.

The assessment was completed and sent the chain of command to senior military and secret service officials, eventually landing at the highest levels of the White House. The Security Council meeting in March came at a delicate time, such as the The coronavirus pandemic was becoming a crisis and causing arrests across the country.

A former American official said that intelligence analyst informing the president and national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien, who worked with his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, would be involved in any decision. to inform Mr. Trump about Russia’s activities. Even the director of the IAC, Gina Haspel, could have intervened, said the former official.

Ms. McEnany cited all three of these senior officials in her statement saying that the president had not been informed.

National security officials have tracked Russia’s relations with the Taliban for years and determined that Moscow has provided financial and material support to high-level and regional Taliban leaders.

While Russia has sometimes collaborated with the United States and seemed interested in Afghan stability, it often seems to work at the crossroads with its national interest if the end result is damage to American national interests, said a former senior White House official from Trump, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security assessments.

Revenge is also a factor in Russia’s support for the Taliban, the official said. Russia was also thrilled with the stairs afterwards a bloody clash in Syria in 2018, when a massive U.S. counterattack killed hundreds of Syrian forces along with Russian mercenaries nominally supported by the Kremlin.

“They are holding a score sheet and want to punish us for that accident,” said the official.

Both Russia and the Taliban have denied the assessment of American intelligence.

Ms Pelosi said that if the president had not, in fact, been informed, the country would have to worry that his administration was afraid to share information about Russia with him.

Ms. Pelosi said that the episode underscored Mr. Trump towards Russia and that with him “all roads lead to Putin”.

“This is so bad, yet the president will not face the Russians on this point, he denies being informed,” he said. “Whether he is or not, his administration knows it, and some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan have been informed and accept this report.”

John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, said in “This Week” that he was unaware of the intelligence assessment, but questioned Mr. Trump’s response on Twitter.

“What would motivate the president to do it, because it seems bad if the Russians are paying to kill Americans and we are not doing anything about it?” Bolton said. “The presidential reaction is to say,” It’s not my responsibility. Nobody told me. And therefore to avoid any complaints for not having acted effectively. “

Bolton said this summed up Trump’s national security decision making. “It’s not connected to the reality it’s dealing with.”

The reporting was provided by Julian E. Barnes, Charlie Savage, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Michael Schwirtz and Michael D. Shear.

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