Trump denies briefing on bounties against US troops

WASHINGTON (AP) – United States (US) President Donald Trump has denied that he was made aware of US intelligence officials’ conclusions that Russia secretly offered bounties to Taleban-linked militants for killing American troops in Afghanistan.

The intelligence assessments came amid Trump’s push to withdraw the US from Afghanistan, and suggested that Russia was making overtures to militants as the US and the Taleban were holding talks to end the long-running war.

The assessment was first reported by The New York Times and then confirmed to The Associated Press (AP) by American intelligence officials and two others with knowledge of the matter.

There were conflicting reports about whether Trump was aware of Russia’s actions. The intelligence officials told the AP that the president was briefed on the matter earlier this year; Trump denied that, tweeting on Sunday that neither he nor Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed.

The president tweeted on Sunday night that he was just told that intelligence officials didn’t report the information to him because they didn’t find it credible.

United States President Donald Trump arrives to speak to a group of young Republicans in Phoenix. PHOTO: AP

The intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the highly sensitive matter.

The White House National Security Council would not confirm the assessments, but said the US receives thousands of intelligence reports daily that are subject to strict scrutiny.

Senator Lindsey Graham, who golfed with Trump on Sunday, tweeted a day earlier that it is “Imperative Congress get to the bottom of recent media reports that Russian GRU units in Afghanistan have offered to pay the Taleban to kill American soldiers with the goal of pushing America out of the region”.

Republican Liz Cheney of Wyoming called for the White House to share more information with Congress, saying if true, lawmakers need to know “Who did know and when?” and, referring to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, “What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?”

Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden said reports that Trump was aware of the Russian bounties would be a “truly shocking revelation” about the commander in chief and his failure to protect US troops in Afghanistan and stand up to Russia. Russia called the report “nonsense”.

“This unsophisticated plant clearly illustrates the low intellectual abilities of the propagandists of American intelligence, who instead of inventing something more plausible have to make up this nonsense,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

A Taleban spokesman said the militants “strongly reject this allegation” and are not “indebted to the beneficence of any intelligence organ or foreign country”.

John Bolton, a former national security adviser who was forced out by Trump last September and has now written a tell-all book about his time at the White House, said on Sunday that “it is pretty remarkable the president’s going out of his way to say he hasn’t heard anything about it. One asks, why would he do something like that?”

Bolton told NBC’s Meet the Press that he thinks the answer “may be precisely because active Russian aggression like that against the American service members is a very, very serious matter and nothing’s been done about it, if it’s true, for these past four or five months, so it may look like he was negligent. But, of course, he can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it”.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of the few congressional leaders briefed on sensitive intelligence matters, told ABC’s This Week that she had not been informed about the reported bounties and requested a report to Congress on the matter.

“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score, denies being briefed. Whether he is or not, his administration knows and our allies – some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan had been briefed and accept this report,” she said.

While Russian meddling in Afghanistan is not a new phenomenon for seasoned US intelligence officials and military commandos, officials said Russian operatives became more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taleban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group that is aligned with the Taleban in Afghanistan and that was designated as a foreign terrorist organisation in 2012.

Russian operatives are said to have met with Taleban leaders in Doha, Qatar and inside Afghanistan; however, it is not known if the meetings were to discuss bounties.