The administration has been all over the map today in their attempts to explain and explain away the unfolding and evolving reporting on how Russian military intelligence, the GRU, has been offering bounties to the Taliban and Taliban affiliated officials to entice them to kill US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. The White House Press Secretary kicked things off by asserting that the US Intelligence Community (IC) had differing opinions regarding this intelligence and because there was no consensus, it was not briefed to the President. The Press Secretary also stated that the President has still not been briefed on this matter!!!!
She made her statements shortly after it was reported that the US Congress would be given a briefing on this intelligence, reading them onto what the IC knows and is reporting. The briefing was done at the White House. This reporting was clarified about an hour later: the briefing would only be for Republicans. And while we now know that the Democrats in Congress will get a briefing on this tomorrow, doing it this way is a SERIOUS PROBLEM!!!! The reason we have a Gang of 8 – the Speaker and Minority Leader in the House, the Majority and Minority Leaders in the Senate, and the chairs and ranking members of the intelligence committees in each chamber – is to ensure that everyone gets briefed on this stuff at the same time. This is also the reason we are supposed to have a bipartisan intelligence oversight process within both the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) where everyone gets briefed at the same time. And the reason that the Gang of 8 or the members of both parties on the intelligence committees get briefed at the same time is to prevent accusations that one side is being told something the other side isn’t. To avoid the politicization of intelligence. And to prevent one side from being told something the other side isn’t.
As I type this, Congressman Schiff, the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has just told Chris Hayes that the Republicans on his committee are boycotting the committee hearings. He indicated that despite these hearing being unclassified and on unclassified matters, the Republican members of the committee don’t believe the hearings are secure enough because they’re being done by video-teleconference or include video-teleconferencing, so they’re boycotting them. This is a problem in and of itself, but it also exacerbates the problem of the Democrats and the Republicans being briefed separately on this matter by the White House. Because there will be no way for the Democrats to be sure that what they are told tomorrow morning is the same thing that the Republicans were told this afternoon. Especially because the Republican members of Congress who were briefed this afternoon immediately took steps to frame what they were told so as to reset and reframe the reporting on this issue. Here’s the statement from Republican Congressmen McCaul and Kinzinger:
Not a terrible statement. Of concern is the fact that both the Director of National Intelligence and the White House Chief of Staff who were involved in the briefing were two of the most divisively partisan members of the Republican caucus in the House until they were tapped this spring to go to work for the administration in positions that neither are qualified for. Another Republican member of the House who was briefed, who, like Congressman Kinzinger, is a veteran, issued a far more detailed statement in a tweet thread. A statement that shows just how the intelligence is going to be framed and who is responsible for all of this:
I just left the White House where I was briefed by CoS @MarkMeadows and top intelligence officials. They discussed @nytimes' hit piece falsely accusing @realDonaldTrump of ignoring reports that Russia placed bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan.
A thread, 👇
— Jim Banks (@RepJimBanks) June 29, 2020
Having served in Afghanistan during the time the alleged bounties were placed, no one is angrier about this than me.
— Jim Banks (@RepJimBanks) June 29, 2020
Americans don't buy the phony Russia-Trump-Collusion narrative.
THEY SEE President Trump's rock solid record in support of our troops, our veterans & American exceptionalism. THEY SEE the media walk back claims of a Trump-Russia scandal over & over. So tired. Change it up!
— Jim Banks (@RepJimBanks) June 29, 2020
This is going to be the official line going forward. That this isn’t a failure of the President and his senior national security principals to take threats to US and coalition forces seriously or to push back on Putin for increasing the threats they face while deployed in Afghanistan. Rather, the real scandal here is that The New York Times wrote a hit piece, which has now somehow destroyed the intelligence process making it impossible to really know what is going on. Congressman Banks, (R-IN 03) might as well have just come out and stated that nothing is true, therefore anything is possible, so who knows? The administration given separate briefings to the Republicans and Democrats in Congress will make this worse because there will be no way to really know that members of both caucuses were given the exact same briefings and received the exact same information.
Sam Vinograd, who was a National Security Staff member during the Obama administration and is a national security analyst and contributor for CNN, just posted a very thorough analysis of what she thinks is going on. Specifically, the various possibilities about how the president could or could not know about this threat intelligence against US and coalition forces in Afghanistan. While I’ve taught how the National Security Staff, the National Security Council, and the Interagency process works, unlike Ms. Vinograd, I’ve never served on it and I defer to her professional experience and knowledge. But I have served as the senior civilian advisor on the special staffs of US Army Corps and Service Component Commanders*. And was prepared to deploy with them if necessary, though that never happened. I can tell you without hesitation from that professional experience that once this information made its way back to the theater commander and the US ambassador in Kabul that it would have been immediately sent back to DC as flash communication for all the senior principals – the Secretaries of Defense and State, the Directors of National Intelligence and Central Intelligence, and the National Security Advisor. It would have also been immediately communicated to the two responsible Geographic Combatant Commanders at US Central Command (CENTCOM) and US Special Operations Command (SOCOM). I would also expect that either the theater commander, one of the two Geographic Combatant Commanders, or some combination of the three of them would have immediately tried to contact the President with the threat intelligence. And this is the part of the reporting and analysis that I find the most amazing. Either each and all of these individuals failed to do what they needed to do, that they were somehow prevented from doing so by someone at the White House, or that they did, the President didn’t track on what they were telling him, and it was allowed to fall through the cracks at the presidential level.
This brings us to the other breaking news from this evening. Specifically, CNN’s incredibly disturbing, though not really surprising reporting that the President’s calls with his foreign counterparts are a hot mess. CNN reports that the President sucks up to the dictators and authoritarians like Putin and Erdogan, while kicking our allies like Trudeau, Macron, and Morrison. And just being obnoxiously abusive to Theresa May and Angela Merkel. He actually called Merkel, who has a PhD from the German Academy of Sciences with a specialty in quantum chemistry, stupid! His former senior national security principals are reported to have been alarmed (emphasis mine):
In hundreds of highly classified phone calls with foreign heads of state, President Donald Trumpwas so consistently unprepared for discussion of serious issues, so often outplayed in his conversations with powerful leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and so abusive to leaders of America’s principal allies, that the calls helped convince some senior US officials — including his former secretaries of state and defense, two national security advisers and his longest-serving chief of staff — that the President himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States, according to White House and intelligence officials intimately familiar with the contents of the conversations.
The calls caused former top Trump deputies — including national security advisers H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and White House chief of staff John Kelly, as well as intelligence officials — to conclude that the President was often “delusional,” as two sources put it, in his dealings with foreign leaders. The sources said there was little evidence that the President became more skillful or competent in his telephone conversations with most heads of state over time. Rather, he continued to believe that he could either charm, jawbone or bully almost any foreign leader into capitulating to his will, and often pursued goals more attuned to his own agenda than what many of his senior advisers considered the national interest.
The insidious effect of the conversations comes from Trump’s tone, his raging outbursts at allies while fawning over authoritarian strongmen, his ignorance of history and lack of preparation as much as it does from the troubling substance, according to the sources. While in office, then- Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats expressed worry to subordinates that Trump’s telephone discussions were undermining the coherent conduct of foreign relations and American objectives around the globe, one of CNN’s sources said. And in recent weeks, former chief of staff Kelly has mentioned the damaging impact of the President’s calls on US national security to several individuals in private.
Two sources compared many of the President’s conversations with foreign leaders to Trump’s recent press “briefings” on the coronavirus pandemic: free form, fact-deficient stream-of-consciousness ramblings, full of fantasy and off-the-wall pronouncements based on his intuitions, guesswork, the opinions of Fox News TV hosts and social media misinformation.
Much, much more at the link! Not that this is really surprising. I did posts on the President’s use of his private, unsecured cell phone back in May of 2018 and September 2019, where I discussed the potential pitfalls of how the President conducts business on the phone. What CNN is reporting confirms everyone’s suspicions and concerns and fleshes out what we knew from September of 2019 that the President’s senior staff were misclassifying the transcripts and notes of his calls with foreign leaders by up classifying them and placing them on a special server. Which was a major issue that came up during the President’s impeachment. What’s surprising here is not that he’s been doing this on official calls, Deity only knows what he does on the unofficial ones from his cell phone when he’s in the residence, but the specific details of what he’s been saying and how badly he’s been treating our allies and partners while sucking up to authoritarian adversaries like Putin and authoritarian unreliable partners like Erdogan.
I expect that the leaks will continue and that they will actually accelerate. Someone read onto this stuff is clearly pissed off and has decided that they’re going to get the word out. Which will, of course, provide the opportunity for the President, his surrogates, and his allies, like Congressman Banks, to try to reframe every report based on these and other leaks as attacks on the President that are actually preventing him from doing his job. I fully expect that Attorney General Barr will announce a DOJ investigation to find the leaker or leakers and bring them to justice. And that the President, his allies, his surrogates, and his campaign will attempt to politicize such an investigation in order to dirty up Vice President Biden and his campaign. Just as they accused the whistle blower of being VP Biden’s guy, they’ll accuse whomever they suspect in these leaks of the same thing.
Update at 11:20 PM EDT
USMC vet and AP reporter James LaPorta tweeted this warning an hour ago:
— James LaPorta (@JimLaPorta) June 30, 2020
His reporting has now been published (emphasis mine):
Top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, a full year earlier than has been previously reported, according to U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence.
The assessment was included in at least one of President Donald Trump’s written daily intelligence briefings at the time, according to the officials. Then-national security adviser John Bolton also told colleagues he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.
The administration’s earlier awareness of the Russian efforts raises additional questions about why Trump did not take any punitive action against Moscow for efforts that put the lives of Americans servicemembers at risk. Trump has sought throughout his time in office to improve relations with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, moving earlier this year to try to reinstate Russia as part of a group of world leaders it had been kicked out of.
Officials said they did not consider the intelligence assessments in 2019 to be particularly urgent, given that Russian meddling in Afghanistan is not a new occurrence. The officials with knowledge of Bolton’s apparent briefing for Trump said it contained no “actionable intelligence,” meaning the intelligence community did not have enough information to form a strategic plan or response. However, the classified assessment of Russian bounties was the sole purpose of the meeting.
Concerns about Russian bounties flared anew this year after members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known to the public as SEAL Team Six, raided a Taliban outpost and recovered roughly $500 thousand in U.S. dollars. The funds bolstered the suspicions of the American intelligence community that the Russians had offered money to Taliban militants and other linked associations.
The White House contends the president was unaware of this development as well. However, the information was also included in the presidential daily briefing. And officials told the AP that O’Brien did brief Trump on the matter. O’Brien has denied such a briefing occurred.
The officials told the AP that career government officials developed potential options for the White House to respond to the Russian aggression in Afghanistan, which was first reported by The New York Times. However, the Trump administration has yet to authorize any action.
Erik Hendriks, the father of Marine Cpl. Robert Hendriks, who was killed in Afghanistan in April 2019 in an attack under suspicion of being linked to Russian bounties told the @AP that even a rumor of Russian bounties should have been immediately addressed https://t.co/ijqBgWgQYi pic.twitter.com/dAlNeSDBCj
— James LaPorta (@JimLaPorta) June 30, 2020
This isn’t going away any time soon!
* I served as the Cultural Advisor (temporary assigned control) to the Commanding General of III Corps from January through September 2012, the Cultural Advisor (temporary assigned control) to the Commanding General of US Army Europe from December 2013 through June 2014, and the Cultural Advisor to the Commanding General of US Army Europe from June through August of 2014 (operational control).