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

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

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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 said the president wasn’t told about it.

One official familiar with the intelligence told NBC News it shows that American service members and Afghan civilians died as a result of Russian payments to the Taliban, but other officials said the intelligence has not been corroborated.

The official did not offer details, and the CIA and other agencies declined to comment. The president and his own spokeswoman offered contradictory descriptions. President Donald 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 Vice President Mike Pence.

At a White House briefing Monday, spokeswoman 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 the intelligence “was not verified.” The deaths resulting from the Russian payments was 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 have questioned why the president wouldn’t have been in the loop. The Director of National Intelligence is expected to announce an interagency review of the matter, a senior official told NBC News.

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 told NBC News the U.S. received “raw intelligence based on limited sourcing” suggesting Russia was offering cash for deaths of American troops and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The officials said the intelligence was not corroborated broadly within the intelligence community, and there was disagreement about it.

A UH-60 Blackhawk lands to pick up the Commandant of the Marine Corps at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan, 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. That meeting was about Russia’s malign activity broadly, and this intelligence was part of the discussion.

The NSC officials examined options for responding if 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 President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov pushed back in an exclusive interview with NBC News, calling reports of such a program “ridiculous.”

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

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

That world-weary view does not 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 Nick Rasmussen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center and an NBC News contributor.

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.”

Keir Simmons contributed.

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