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The Russia-Taliban bounties: What did the president know and when did he know it?

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Terry H. Schwadron
Terry H. Schwadron

We’ve heard allegations about Russian attempts to bribe Taliban-leaning Islamic militants to target Americans and coalition troops in Afghanistan. The claims are the result of U.S. intelligence conclusions. What has followed makes the developments worse:

  • Intelligence sources are doubling down and saying there indeed were U.S. troops killed, including three Marines caught in a truck bombing.
  • Donald Trump repeatedly and flatly denies that he or Vice President Mike Pence ever were briefed about the intelligence – despite the fact of a late March White House meeting to consider alternatives.
  • And overnight, two unnamed senior officials at the White House confirm that there were written briefings in late February, even naming the day, per The New York Times.

Instead what we’ve not heard is that Trump is aware and what we are planning to do as a result. Rather, he dismisses the whole issue, and accuses The New York Times, which first disclosed these reports, as trying to “make Republicans look bad.”

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Of course, protecting our troops is Job One for the president, and this one is swinging and missing. My bigger concern is that we have heard nothing about the other conclusion here: Trump either avoids intelligence briefings, or ignores what does not contribute to his personal worldview. In this case, protestations aside, it recalls all the questions raised by the all-things-Russia inquiries. Indeed, Trump is saying the U.S. intelligence did not find the allegations credible, as if that is an explanation for why he never heard any of it.

Simply put: Isn’t it his job to seek out intelligence of this sort? Isn’t it the job of intelligence to report issues of this kind to him? Is this government so totally dysfunctional that it cannot do even basic blocking and tackling?

What Do We Know?

We do know from leaks to news reporters—information that the CIA is confirming —that 28 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan since 2018 from hostile fire or roadside bombs. In the same time, several troops were also killed by what are known as “green on blue” hostile incidents by members of Afghan security forces, which are sometimes believed to have been infiltrated by the Taliban.

Longtime columnist David Ignatius, very plugged into Washington sources, said the Pentagon was “banging on the door” for the White House to take action.

Once the CIA confirmed the information, there was a White House meeting about it. Details about the session included that there was disagreement about steps forward. The administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, preferred confronting the Russians directly about the matter, while some National Security Council officials in charge of Russia were more dismissive of taking immediate action, an unnamed official told The Washington Post.

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Yet we are to believe that no one told Trump? How do we square these accounts with Trump’s protestations of “toughness” when he notoriously avoids even sitting through daily or twice-a-week intelligence assessments, and apparently won’t read the daily presidential intelligence summaries?

The only toughness we’re seeing comes from new National Security Advisory John Ratcliff who is outraged that there was a leak from within the White House. We can hope that he gets a better wrench, because leaking may be the only thing getting done with any consistency.

Listening to Intelligence

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Sure, the pandemic was taking center stage, Russia and the Taliban both deny the reports and we know that Trump dislikes taking actions against Russia. The British were briefed late last week on the intelligence assessment, although other alliance governments were not formally informed.

Does this sound like responsible governing?

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Various members of Congress on both sides are indicating official upset over all of this.

But what bothers me is Trump does not see it is his job to be on top of information of this sort.

Why is he in the White House altogether? Would you let this guy be in charge of anything for you?

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