The Russia Bounty Story Was Always Murky

The intelligence community is inundated with ‘low to moderate confidence’ information frequently. Why did this get so much attention?

During a briefing Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked whether the Biden administration thinks “Russia placed bounties on American troops.” Her answer demonstrated why this storyline, which garnered much press during the 2020 presidential campaign, was always dubious. 

“Well, I would say, first, that we felt the reports were enough of a cause of concern that we wanted our intelligence community to look into those reports as a part of this overall assessment,” Psaki replied.  “They assessed … with low to moderate confidence … that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan.”

“Low to moderate confidence” doesn’t mean that the story was a complete “hoax,” as President Trump claimed. There was some intelligence behind this reporting. 

It does mean that then-candidate Biden was far too strident in his critiques of Trump. For instance, Biden said it was “absolutely despicable” that Trump didn’t challenge Putin on the allegations. 

In reality, this story was always murky

From the beginning, the U.S. intelligence community wasn’t really sure whether the Russians actually paid for any anti-American operations. In other words, they didn’t know whether the alleged bounty offers had any real effect. 

This seems to be what Psaki was alluding to when she said “Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks” on the U.S. and NATO personnel. “Sought to encourage” means the U.S. intelligence community couldn’t say that any operations actually occurred because of the purported bounties.

Psaki pointed to the uncertainty of “detainee reporting” and “the challenging operating environment in Afghanistan” as reasons for the intelligence community’s “low to moderate confidence.”  

But there’s an added issue, one which I addressed when this story first broke: Why would the Taliban need encouragement from Russia to do what it’s been doing for most of the last two decades—namely, attacking American and NATO forces?

U.S. officials told reporters that two specific attacks were being scrutinized. One was the April 8, 2019, bombing outside of the Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. military facility in Afghanistan. Three U.S. Marines were killed and several other people were wounded. 

That bombing looked like many other typical Taliban operations through the years. The Taliban’s official spokesman quickly claimed responsibility for it, praising the “martyr” who blew himself up. The Taliban routinely attacked Bagram both before and after the April 8, 2019 suicide bombing, including another suicide raid in December 2019. None of these other operations at Bagram were supposedly instigated by Russian bounties. So, why did the April 2019 attack stand out? There were no answers offered.  

The Russian bounty theory included the possibility that “criminals” who worked with the Taliban were paid by the Russians to strike at Americans. Speaking on background to reporters Thursday, a senior administration official said their “conclusion is based on information and evidence of connections between criminal agents in Afghanistan and elements of the Russian government.”  

But why would criminals be called upon to carry out a Taliban suicide bombing – the type of ideologically motivated operation the jihadists specialize in? 

This is not to suggest that such an arrangement is impossible, but in Afghanistan’s sea of violence, it is curious that such reporting would stand out, especially without confirmation.

The reality is that the U.S. intelligence community is inundated with “low to moderate confidence”-type reporting all the time. Why did the alleged Russian bounties deserve front-page attention? It’s natural to suspect that anything Russia-related stood out to officials during the Trump years, when the president was widely accused of being a Russian asset and a Kremlin hook could instantly hype any story.  

Psaki explained that the U.S. intelligence community “assesses” with “high confidence” that Russian’s military intelligence service, the Main Intelligence Directorate (also known as the GRU), “manage[s] interaction with individuals and Afghan criminal networks” and the “involvement of this [GRU] unit is consistent with Russia’s encouraging attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan.” It may be “consistent” with the bounty story, but it doesn’t close the loop and show that the GRU paid for actual attacks.

Although the reporting isn’t firm, Psaki said the Biden administration “felt it was important for our intelligence community to look into it” and “will not stand by and accept the targeting of our personnel by any elements, including a foreign state actor.”  

“This information really puts the burden on Russia and the Russian government to explain their engagement here,” Psaki added. 

Again, the U.S. government should be forward leaning when it comes to protecting American troops, especially as they are withdrawn from Afghanistan. But that doesn’t mean this story deserved all the attention it received.