Russia intel mystery: How strong is the case that Russia bribed the Taliban to kill Americans?

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Russia intel mystery: How strong is the case that Russia bribed the Taliban to kill Americans?

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s handling of Russia-related matters came under renewed scrutiny Monday as officials acknowledged that U.S. spies obtained intelligence about a Russian bounty program in Afghanistan — but they said the president wasn’t told about it.

An official familiar with the intelligence told NBC News that it shows that U.S. service members and Afghan civilians died as a result of Russian payments to the Taliban, but other officials said the intelligence hasn’t been corroborated.

The official didn’t offer details, and the CIA and other agencies declined to comment. President Donald Trump and his own spokeswoman offered contradictory descriptions. Trump said in a tweet late Sunday that “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me” or to Vice President Mike Pence.

At a White House briefing Monday, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said “there was not a consensus” among the intelligence community about the information, which was first reported Friday by The New York Times. She added that there “are dissenting opinions” and that the intelligence “was not verified.” The deaths resulting from the Russian payments were first reported Sunday by The Washington Post.

Presidents are frequently briefed on intelligence that isn’t fully verified, current and former officials said. In the spy world, saying intelligence is unverified doesn’t automatically bear on whether it is credible.

Members of Congress from both parties have demanded that the Trump administration respond, and they have questioned why the president wouldn’t have been in the loop. The director of national intelligence is expected to announce an interagency review, a senior official said.

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McEnany’s comments are consistent with what multiple officials told NBC News: that there is intelligence about Russians’ offering a bounty to kill Americans but that officials disagree about the implications and significance of the plot.

Two senior administration officials said the U.S. received “raw intelligence based on limited sourcing” suggesting that Russia was offering cash for deaths of U.S. troops and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The officials said that the intelligence wasn’t corroborated broadly within the intelligence community and that there was disagreement about it.

A UH-60 Blackhawk lands to pick up the commandant of the Marine Corps at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan, on June 20, 2017.Sgt. Justin Updegraff / U.S. Marine Corps file

Some officials thought the intelligence was valid, while others disagreed, the officials said.

The issue came up at a meeting of low-level staffers at the National Security Council in March, the two officials said. The meeting was about Russia’s malign activity broadly, and the intelligence was part of the discussion.

The National Security Council officials examined options for responding in case the intelligence was verified.

Trump learned about the matter only after it became public in news reports, the officials said.

The Taliban denies that there was a bounty program, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, pushed back in an exclusive interview, calling reports of such a program “ridiculous.”

“It’s a little bit rude, but this is 100 percent bulls—,” Peskov said. “It’s as simple as that.”

U.S. defense and intelligence officials say Russia has been supporting the Taliban for years, and the Russian military intelligence unit in question — Unit 29155 — is believed to have been involved in assassinations around the world, including the 2018 poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in England.

Russia intel mystery: How strong is the case that Russia bribed the Taliban to kill Americans? 1

It’s therefore not surprising, these officials say, that this Russian group would be plotting violence against the U.S.

That world-weary view doesn’t explain, however, why the president wouldn’t be briefed about intelligence of a lethal program run by one of America’s top adversaries.

“This information was circulating among his most senior advisers, and they had an obligation to bring that to him so that he could have a part in the discussion,” said NBC News contributor Nick Rasmussen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Rasmussen said Trump’s dismissal of the matter was disturbing.

“I’m not sure either of [the president’s] answers — nobody told me or I wasn’t aware — should give the American people much comfort,” he said.

Keir Simmons contributed.

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