U.S. intelligence officials are now backing off their claim that Russia had offered bounties on American soldiers to Taliban fighters, saying Thursday they now have "low to moderate confidence" in that assessment.
Last June, during the heat of the presidential race, the initial report was released saying that the bounties had been offered, and The New York Times followed up with a report that then-President Donald Trump was made aware of it — something he later denied, Mediate notes, because Trump said at the time that the intel wasn't credible.
His Democrat opponent at the time, now-President Joe Biden, was critical of Trump, saying, "the idea that somehow he didn’t know or isn’t being briefed, it is a dereliction of duty if that’s the case."
On Thursday, the Biden administration announced sanctions against Russia for the SolarWinds hack and for its continued occupation of Crimea. As part of that action, Axios noted: "Thursday's sanctions will not be tied to allegations that Russia paid Afghan militants to attack U.S. troops."
"The United States intelligence community assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019 and perhaps earlier," Yahoo News quoted a senior administration official.
"This information puts a burden on the Russian government to explain its actions and take steps to address this disturbing pattern of behavior," the official continued, indicating Yahoo News said, that Biden does not plan to fully walk back the story.
"We have noted our conclusion of the review that we conducted on the bounties issue and we have conveyed through diplomatic, intelligence and military channels strong, direct messages on this issue, but we are not specifically tying the actions we are taking today to that matter," a senior administration official said, according to Yahoo.
Officials on the press call to reporters about the issues said the original reporting of the "bounties" came from "detainee reporting" — possibly meaning, Yahoo noted, that someone being held by American-aligned Afghan jailers told them what they wanted to hear in order to get out of jail and may have had no corroborating evidence.
The U.S. official cited "information and evidence of connections to criminal agents in Afghanistan and elements of the Russian government" as the sources used for their original assessment.
The "difficult operating environment in Afghanistan" makes it harder to confirm what is essentially a rumor, the senior Biden administration official said.
Asked about the issue Thursday, press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration "felt the reports were enough of a cause for concern that we wanted our intelligence community to look into this report as a part of this overall assessment."
Psaki said that despite the low-to-moderate confidence on possible Russian bounties, U.S. intelligence had "high confidence" that Russian military intelligence officers "manage interaction with individuals in Afghan criminal networks." She added that the "involvement of this ... unit is consistent with Russia’s encouraging attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan."
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