The New York Times dropped another Russiagate bombshell on June 26 with a sensational front-page story headlined, “Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says.” A predictable media and political frenzy followed, reviving the anti-Russian hysteria that has excited the Beltway establishment for the past four years.
But a closer look at the reporting by the Times and other mainstream outlets vying to confirm its coverage reveals another scandal not unlike Russiagate itself: the core elements of the story appear to have been fabricated by Afghan government intelligence to derail a potential US troop withdrawal from the country. And they were leaked to the Times and other outlets by US national security state officials who shared an agenda with their Afghan allies.
In the days following the story’s publication, the maneuvers of the Afghan regime and US national security bureaucracy encountered an unexpected political obstacle: US intelligence agencies began offering a series of low confidence assessments in the Afghan government’s self-interested intelligence claims, judging them to be highly suspect at best, and altogether bogus at worst.
In light of this dramatic development, the Times’ initial report appears to have been the product of a sensationalistic disinformation dump aimed at prolonging the failed Afghan war in the face of President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw US troops from it.
The Times quietly reveals its own sources’ falsehoods
The Times not only broke the Bountygate story but commissioned squads of reporters comprising nine different correspondents to write eight articles hyping the supposed scandal in the course of eight days. Its coverage displayed the paper’s usual habit of regurgitating bits of dubious information furnished to its correspondents by faceless national security sources. In the days after the Times’ dramatic publication, its correspondent squads were forced to revise the story line to correct an account that ultimately turned out to be false on practically every important point.
The Bountygate saga began on June 26, with a Times report declaring, “The United States concluded months ago” that the Russians “had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.” The report suggested that US intelligence analysts had reached a firm conclusion on Russian bounties as early as January. A follow-up Times report portrayed the shocking discovery of the lurid Russian plot thanks to the recovery of a large amount of U.S. cash from a “raid on a Taliban outpost.” That article sourced its claim to the interrogations of “captured Afghan militants and criminals.”
However, subsequent reporting revealed that the “US intelligence reports” about a Russian plot to distribute bounties through Afghan middlemen were not generated by US intelligence at all.
The Times reported first on June 28, then again on June 30, that a large amount of cash found at a “Taliban outpost” or a “Taliban site” had led U.S. intelligence to suspect the Russian plot. But the Times had to walk that claim back, revealing on July 1 that the raid that turned up $500,000 in cash had in fact targeted the Kabul home of Rahmatullah Azizi, an Afghan businessmen said to have been involved in both drug trafficking and contracting for part of the billions of dollars the United States spent on construction projects.
The Times also disclosed that the information provided by “captured militants and criminals” under “interrogation” had been the main source of suspicion of a Russian bounty scheme in Afghanistan. But those “militants and criminals” turned out to be thirteen relatives and business associates of the businessman whose house was raided.
The Times reported that those detainees were arrested and interrogated following the January 2020 raids based on suspicions by Afghan intelligence that they belonged to a “ring of middlemen” operating between the Russian GRU and so-called “Taliban-linked militants,” as Afghan sources made clear.
Furthermore, contrary to the initial report by the Times, those raids had actually been carried out exclusively by the Afghan intelligence service known as the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The Times disclosed this on July 1. Indeed, the interrogation of those detained in the raids was carried out by the NDS, which explains why the Times reporting referred repeatedly to “interrogations” without ever explaining who actually did the questioning.
Given the notorious record of the NDS, it must be assumed that its interrogators used torture or at least the threat of it to obtain accounts from the detainees that would support the Afghan government’s narrative. Both the Toronto Globe and Mail and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) have documented as recently as 2019 the frequent use of torture by the NDS to obtain information from detainees. The primary objective of the NDS was to establish an air of plausibility around the claim that the fugitive businessman Azizi was the main “middleman” for a purported GRU scheme to offer bounties for killing Americans.
NDS clearly fashioned its story to suit the sensibilities of the U.S. national security state. The narrative echoed previous intelligence reports about Russian bounties in Afghanistan that circulated in early 2019, and which were even discussed at NSC meetings. Nothing was done about these reports, however, because nothing had been confirmed.
The idea that hardcore Taliban fighters needed or wanted foreign money to kill American invaders could have been dismissed on its face. So Afghan officials spun out claims that Russian bounties were paid to incentivize violence by “militants and criminals” supposedly “linked” to the Taliban.
These elements zeroed in on the April 2019 IED attack on a vehicle near the U.S. military base at Bagram in Parwan province that killed three US Marines, insisting that the Taliban had paid local criminal networks in the region to carry out attacks.
As former Parwan police chief Gen. Zaman Mamozai told the Times, Taliban commanders were based in only two of the province’s ten districts, forcing them to depend on a wider network of non-Taliban killers-for-hire to carry out attacks elsewhere in the province. These areas included the region around Bagram, according to the Afghan government’s argument.
But Dr. Thomas H. Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School, a leading expert on insurgency and counter-insurgency in Afghanistan who has been researching war in the country for three decades, dismissed the idea that the Taliban would need a criminal network to operate effectively in Parwan.
“The Taliban are all over Parwan,” Johnson stated in an interview with The Grayzone, observing that its fighters had repeatedly carried out attacks on or near the Bagram base throughout the war.
With withdrawal looming, the national security state plays its Bountygate card
Senior U.S. national security officials had clear ulterior motives for embracing the dubious NDS narrative. More than anything, those officials were determined to scuttle Trump’s push for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. For Pentagon brass and civilian leadership, the fear of withdrawal became more acute in early 2020 as Trump began to demand an even more rapid timetable for a complete pullout than the 12-14 months being negotiated with the Taliban.
It was little surprise then that this element leapt at the opportunity to exploit the self-interested claims by the Afghan NDS to serve its own agenda, especially as the November election loomed. The Times even cited one “senior [US] official” musing that “the evidence about Russia could have threatened that [Afghanistan] deal, because it suggested that after eighteen year of war, Mr. Trump was letting Russia chase the last American troops out of the country.”
In fact, the intelligence reporting from the CIA Station in Kabul on the NDS Russia bounty claims was included in the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) on or about February 27 — just as the negotiation of the U.S. peace agreement with the Taliban was about to be signed. That was too late to prevent the signing but timed well enough to ratchet up pressure on Trump to back away from his threat to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan.
Trump may have been briefed orally on the issue at the time, but even if he had not been, the presence of a summary description of the intelligence in the PDB could obviously have been used to embarrass him on Afghanistan by leaking it to the media.
According to Ray McGovern, a former CIA official who was responsible for preparing the PDB for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the insertion of raw, unconfirmed intelligence from a self-interested Afghan intelligence agency into the PDB was a departure from normal practice.
Unless it was a two or three-sentence summary of a current intelligence report, McGovern explained, an item in the PDB normally involved only important intelligence that had been confirmed. Furthermore, according to McGovern, PDB items are normally shorter versions of items prepared the same day as part of the CIA’s “World Intelligence Review” or “WIRe.”
Information about the purported Russian bounty scheme, however, was not part of the WIRe until May 4, well over two months later, according to the Times. That discrepancy added weight to the suggestion that the CIA had political motivations for planting the raw NDS reporting in the PDB before it could be evaluated.
This June, Trump’s National Security Council (NSC) convened a meeting to discuss the intelligence report, officials told the Times. NSC members drew up a range of options in response to the alleged Russian plot, from a diplomatic protest to more forceful responses. Any public indication that US troops in Afghanistan had been targeted by Russian spies would have inevitably threatened Trump’s plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan.
At some point in the weeks that followed, the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency each undertook evaluations of the Afghan intelligence claims. Once the Times began publishing stories about the issue, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe directed the National Intelligence Council, which is responsible for managing all common intelligence community assessments, to write a memorandum summarizing the intelligence organizations’ conclusions.
The memorandum revealed that the intelligence agencies were not impressed with what they’d seen. The CIA and National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) each gave the NDS intelligence an assessment of “moderate confidence,” according to memorandum.
An official guide to intelligence community terminology used by policymakers to determine how much they should rely on assessments indicates that “moderate confidence” generally indicates that “the information being used in the analysis may be interpreted in various ways….” It was hardly a ringing endorsement of the NDS intelligence when the CIA and NCTC arrived at this finding.
The assessment by the National Security Agency was even more important, given that it had obtained intercepts of electronic data on financial transfers “from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account,” according to the Times’ sources. But the NSA evidently had no idea what the transfers related to, and essentially disavowed the information from the Afghan intelligence agency.
The NIC memorandum reported that NSA gave the information from Afghan intelligence “low confidence” — the lowest of the three possible levels of confidence used in the intelligence community. According to the official guide to intelligence community terminology, that meant that “information used in the analysis is scant, questionable, fragmented, or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be inferred from the information.”
Other intelligence agencies reportedly assigned “low confidence” to the information as well, according to the memorandum. Even the Defense Intelligence Agency, known for its tendency to issue alarmist warnings about activities by US adversaries, found no evidence in the material linking the Kremlin to any bounty offers.
Less than two weeks after the Times rolled out its supposed bombshell on Russian bounties, relying entirely on national security officials pushing their own bureaucratic interests on Afghanistan, the story was effectively discredited by the intelligence community itself. In a healthy political climate, this would have produced a major setback for the elements determined to keep US troops entrenched in Afghanistan.
But the political hysteria generated by the Times and the hyper-partisan elements triggered by the appearance of another sordid Trump-Putin connection easily overwhelmed the countervailing facts. It was all the Pentagon and its bureaucratic allies needed to push back on plans for a speedy withdrawal from a long and costly war.
Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist who has covered national security policy since 2005 and was the recipient of Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2012. His most recent book is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis co-authored with John Kiriakou, just published in February.