Spoiler up front: the reason is that the proposition – that it’s some kind of administration black eye in terms of taking care of the troops – is militarily incongruous. We don’t need special indications that Russians (or Iranians, or anyone else) are offering bounties on the U.S. troops deployed in active combat zones, to be alert and proactive about force defense in those zones.
We’re already alert and proactive.
Such information is supplemental (and it was provided to the forces in-country on an unconfirmed basis). It doesn’t change the basic operational posture.
This is especially the case given that we’ve already known for years that bounties are likely to be offered on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. forces haven’t spent one day in the last decade under the misapprehension that no one could possibly be offering bounties on our troops in AfPak (or Syria, for that matter).
Before going further, let’s take a listen to a blessedly non-politicized briefing from Military Times (in its weekly “Briefing” video) about the Russian bounties narrative. It’s the first brief in the package, starting about 40 seconds in.
Kudos to Military Times for delivering the only brief, cogent, spin-free summary I’ve seen of the “Russian bounties” proposition to date. The first item reviewed is whether the intelligence was valid. The second is what the response has been.
Here is the money passage:
The second component is when did the White House know about this, and have they done anything. We’ve seen reports that say at least as early as March, maybe February or even 2019, the president was briefed, had some knowledge of Russia targeting U.S. troops. But didn’t act and make any public announcements, didn’t issue any new orders to the Department of Defense. So, both of those things are what lawmakers are concerned about right now: is it true, and did we do enough to react to it when we found out?
Military Times Deputy Editor Leo Shane goes on to say that lawmakers are tying their concern to the U.S. casualties in Afghanistan over the past year.
The “is it true?” question remains unanswered. If there’s continuing doubt about it, that tells me it is not a slam-dunk, but rather a piece of information that has yet to be validated or corroborated. In other words, the source itself is not considered demonstrably reliable or definitive, and however old the original information is, it hasn’t been corroborated by other intelligence or subsequent events.
(I also note that not one member of Congress commenting on the briefing about the information – from the CIA this past week – has said anything in public at all about the validity of the information. The void of color or opinion in that regard has been noteworthy. It tells its own tale; one thing it tells us is that the CIA didn’t say it was likely to be valid. But for some reason, even Republicans haven’t been anxious to put down emphatic markers that it’s unconfirmed. They’re just not talking, and – even more informatively – neither is anyone else. Curiously, moreover, when you actually listen to each public comment by a Republican, the reference to being angry at Putin turns out to be a generic one, on principle – which is perfectly valid – and not an implication that the “Russian bounties” information per se has been verified.)
The operational issue
The important point, however, is that what we’re talking about is a foreign power allegedly offering bounties to terrorist militants to attack and kill U.S. service members deployed in a combat zone.
How are the terrorists (in this case, the Taliban) going to do that? Using the same methods they use when they’re attacking U.S. service members for their own purposes. In other words, doing the things we’re already on the watch for 24/7, and have rules of engagement for.
There’s another consideration, which is the question whether a foreign power offering bounties would also offer intelligence and weapons to the Taliban to help them score bounties. Believe me, the president doesn’t have to order anyone to pursue that consideration. The military already knows enough to start tracking that down immediately, even on yet-to-be-validated information. It has no need to ask permission, and no purpose for doing so.
When National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke this past week of the military commanders being briefed on the unconfirmed Russian-bounties information, that’s the kind of thing they were assuring Americans had been triggered like clockwork.
Speaking about the Russian bounty scandal on Fox News, Trump National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien claims, "We did everything right here." pic.twitter.com/ID5hb3QsKf
— The American Independent (@AmerIndependent) July 1, 2020
I want to assure all of our service members that we take seriously any and all potential threats against U.S. military personnel. pic.twitter.com/Tcg3xzkZQ8
— @EsperDoD (@EsperDoD) July 1, 2020
NOW: NSA Robert O’Brien tells reporters “career intel officer” made call not to verbally brief @realDonaldTrump on alleged Russian bounty plot “the person who decided early on whether the president should be briefed on this in the Oval, in the Oval intelligence briefing was…
— Catherine Herridge (@CBS_Herridge) July 1, 2020
The “bounty schedule,” if you will – i.e., how much is being paid for what types of kills or damage – would also be informative, if known. It would speak to the level of incentive, and shape predictions about the kinds of attacks that would be most likely.
But the Taliban already have and use IEDs of various kinds, with an extensive history of tactical deployment for them; and they have the capability of rocket and mortar attacks, as well as short-range/low-level anti-air attacks. Virtually all the rocket, mortar, and short-range air attacks in the hot-spots of Asia and the Middle East are made with former-Soviet weaponry (in original or back-engineered form), of which the U.S. forces have extensive experience. If the bounties factor means newer systems are coming into play – then see the point above about U.S. intel pursuing that without prompting from the president.
The Taliban’s (and other terrorists’) history in Afghanistan with roadside bombs, ambushes, etc. is voluminous in itself; it’s what they’ve done for years, and there is no need to ask President Trump to say something new before weaving into the force operational posture the possibility that the Russians are offering bounties for these well-known types of attack.
The same is true of suicide bombings and ambush shootings in markets, as well as more elaborate attacks on helicopter landing zones and civil security outposts, where U.S./NATO and Afghan forces operate together.
Obviously, a piece of information like the Russian-bounties narrative would cue U.S. intelligence to be extra-vigilant about signs of Russian backing for terrorist infiltration of Afghan forces. Working closely with the Afghans in security operations is a key point of vulnerability for the U.S. and NATO. It would be a likely avenue for bounty-incentivized attacks.
Like everything else in the operational picture, this is not a brilliantly clever insight; it’s just what U.S. forces in-country would already know to act on, without the slightest urging from the White House.
The strategic/geopolitical issue
Alert readers have probably recognized that the real issue, then, if there is one, is what was done about Russia being a source of bounties on U.S. service members.
That gets back to whether the information is valid. If it’s not, then what, exactly, was the president supposed to do about it? Demand answers from Russia about unconfirmed information – information whose exposure to Russia might even put intelligence sources or methods in jeopardy?
If the information hasn’t been either validated in its own right or corroborated by other intelligence or events, then there is no compelling need to bring this information up with Russia at the diplomatic level. The drawbacks of such a course appear to outweigh the incentives for it. Seek more intelligence on it – of course. That’s exactly what we’ve been doing, assuming O’Brien is telling the truth.
Note, meanwhile, the excellent point Michael Pregent made this week that there’s already enough of a history of Russia targeting our troops that we can bring the point up at any time, without reference to any individual piece of information.
We know that Russia and Iran have stepped up lethal aid to the Taliban to "counter ISIS" in Afghanistan.
We also know that the Taliban has used that lethal aid to kill Americans and Afghan security forces.
Let's hold both accountable.
— Michael P Pregent (@MPPregent) July 1, 2020
That’s where the emphasis for policy should be. Policy includes sanctions as well as diplomacy. We’ve had enough reason all along to sanction Russian activities as we have; if a specific piece of information about bounties is valid, that would be one more. But emphasizing the reason in public is to be done on verification, and when sources or methods won’t have to be compromised. Pregent’s point makes the media hype about the “Russian bounties” data point look even more like a planted controversy of some kind.
The nature and source of the information are the key
We already have some near-decisive evaluation factors for the Russian-bounties narrative. One is that Democrat Adam Schiff was briefed on it in February 2020 and did nothing at the time. Another is that, as mentioned above, we have known for years that bounties are offered on our troops in Southwest Asia. The Russian-bounties story does not decisively affect our operational posture or its outcomes in Afghanistan – especially if the original information was from as early as 2019. If it’s that old, we’ve had enough time to assess that it is not a game-changing emergency that demands publicizing dubious information or compromising intelligence sources or methods.
As regards the “Russian culpability” aspect of the problem, what matters is whether it’s true. That’s something that is best assessed by where it came from and how it got to us: the two things the public has no clue about.
Mollie Hemingway had a nice summary several days ago comparing the Russian-bounties tale to previous instances of later-repudiated intelligence like the CURVEBALL informant on Iraqi WMD programs. I recommend that summary as a good bracer.
That said, the reluctance of anyone to give even the slightest hint about the nature of the information itself, and the concern expressed by Republicans that the big problem here is the politicization of intelligence for leak campaigns to the media, suggest that there’s a source behind it in whom (or which) the U.S. is invested. If so, and that source has been jeopardized by the leak, then the leaker(s) and the media ought to be more than ashamed of themselves: they ought to be locked up for the rest of their lives.
I have seen the intelligence & I want to be clear: this is very serious & deserves a strong reaction, if true. The NYT report does NOT paint the whole picture, and we need to put the politics aside. Our outrage should be directed at Putin. https://t.co/jEHdepkZSq
— Adam Kinzinger (@RepKinzinger) July 1, 2020
— All American Girl (@AIIAmericanGirI) July 4, 2020
Even if there’s a real, U.S.-invested source, that doesn’t mean the information is valid. It could, however, mean that keeping it close-hold within the administration was all along about protecting the source.
And that said, we might typically expect the information to be thought more credible if it came from a U.S.-invested source. There are other possibilities. One that can’t be dismissed is that the information came to U.S. intelligence, sure enough, but from a source some in the U.S. media were also independently aware of. (A source in, say, Qatar would fit the profile for such dual injection points.)
That would certainly merit a thorough investigation, although not the one congressional Democrats seem to have in mind.
The progress of the information through our national security organization indicates that it did come in to the administration through the front door of U.S. intelligence. But that doesn’t mean it made its way to the New York Times by that route.