Some of Trump’s own senior intelligence officials viewed the information as credible enough to warn the Pentagon and allies so they could ensure they had measures in place to protect their forces in Afghanistan, and to begin developing options for responding to the Russian operation, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien said Wednesday.
And though the administration has sought to downplay the veracity of the intelligence, O’Brien said the CIA has asked the Justice Department to open a leak investigation on the matter.
The officials cautioned that Trump’s posture could change as pressure mounts from Congress to respond to the reports of Russian bounties, as intelligence analysts suspect the deaths of three Marines in Afghanistan in 2019 may have resulted from the Russian operation. Like others interviewed, the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
White House communications director Alyssa Farah declined to comment on the intelligence reports except to say they were “uncorroborated,” and to criticize “selectively leaked intelligence.” The president, she said, “always puts the safety and security of U.S. service members above all else.”
O’Brien told reporters Wednesday that CIA Director Gina Haspel distributed the intelligence to coalition forces “to make sure they could have force protection.” He said as soon as the Pentagon received the information, “we made sure we had tactics in place . . . to look after our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Afghanistan.”
Officials from several NATO allies in Afghanistan, however, said they were not officially informed until last week.
O’Brien said Haspel circulated the “raw intelligence — even though it wasn’t verified.” Former intelligence officials say, however, that officials would not have circulated the intelligence or taken precautionary measures had they not believed the reports were credible.
In a news conference Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to confirm the reported information — if not the intelligence community assessment of it — saying that “the intelligence community handled this incredibly well.”
The administration receives multiple threat reports from throughout the world every day, Pompeo said, “so I can assure you that whatever reporting it is that you’re referring to, that we responded in precisely the correct way, with respect to making sure that our forces are postured appropriately, that they were aware of the level of the threat, the credibility of the threat, and that we were there.”
Responding to lawmakers of both parties who are “suggesting that they are shocked and appalled by this,” Pompeo said, “They saw the same intelligence that we saw, so it would be interesting to ask them what they did when they saw whatever intelligence it is that they are referring to.” He said the information was shared “more broadly” than with just the intelligence committees.
Russian involvement against U.S. interests in Afghanistan is “nothing new,” Pompeo said. Russia has been “selling small arms that have put Americans at risk for 10 years.” Without referring specifically to the bounty report, Pompeo said he brings up Afghanistan “with great frequency” in talks with his Russian counterparts.
His message to them, he said, is “Stop this.”
O’Brien reiterated Wednesday that though officials decided not to present Trump with “uncorroborated” intelligence, they took the situation seriously enough to prepare options for the president. “If this eventually becomes something that’s proven, or something that we believe, we need to have options for the president to deal with the Russians,” O’Brien said during an appearance on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.”
But former officials who have taken part in options development say national security officials would not have begun the process had they not felt the information had to be taken seriously. Options including sanctions and diplomatic censure were debated in late March. The administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, was said to prefer confronting the Russians directly about the matter.
“They obviously thought it exceeded the threshold for action, which implies that it was more than a stray, uncorroborated report,” said Katrina Mulligan, a former director on the National Security Council staff in Barack Obama’s administration.
Asked whether Trump is prepared to take any action on the options O’Brien has said have been prepared, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday that “I won’t get ahead of the president. I also won’t get ahead of the intelligence, which at this moment is unverified.”
McEnany said it was the decision of the intelligence officer in charge of orally briefing the president not to tell him about the bounty reports, a decision that “O’Brien agreed with.” Intelligence, McEnany said, is normally not “transmitted up to the president” until there is “a strategic decision for the president to make” on what to do about it. “That’s the way intelligence works.”
She said senior intelligence officials on Thursday will brief the bipartisan congressional leadership, including the chairmen and vice chairmen of both chambers’ intelligence committees.
But former intelligence officials familiar with the briefing process say decisions on what to include in the oral briefing are not made by the career intelligence officer alone, but rather in consultation with the national security adviser, director of national intelligence and the CIA director.
Former intelligence officials have said that it is not unusual for presidents to be briefed on significant threats even if not fully corroborated, and that the intelligence community has determined that the bounty intelligence is credible.
“It’s O’Brien’s responsibility to brief the president about threats big and small — and about what the White House is doing about them,” Mulligan said. “The intelligence community briefs the president on what he needs to know. Sometimes it involves a strategic decision. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s no less relevant for the president to understand.”
Democratic lawmakers have expressed alarm about the reports and White House inaction, with some, including Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), calling for sanctions against Russia.
Some Republicans have also pressed for a strong response if the reports are corroborated, they said. “If intelligence reports are verified that Russia or any other country is placing bounties on American troops, then they need to be treated as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Sen. Thom Tillis (N.C.) tweeted this week.
Former intelligence officials said divisions in Washington will embolden Moscow. “A failure to respond puts U.S. troops at risk across the globe and guarantees that Putin’s violations of international law, assassinations, cyberattacks and efforts to undermine the United States will continue unabated,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior strategic analyst on Russia in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and before that at the CIA.
The Russian military spy agency said to have offered the bounties is the GRU, and in particular a sub-unit that in 2018 in Britain poisoned a former GRU official turned British double agent. A different GRU unit interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, carrying out hacking attacks meant to exacerbate discord in the Democratic Party.
Putin has learned from 2016 that the GRU is an effective tool for attacking the United States, said Thad Troy, a former CIA officer now with Martin+Crumpton Group, who was one of the first U.S. officials to meet with Putin in the late 1990s when Putin ran Russia’s FSB, the main successor to the KGB.
“Though Putin has continually been active against the United States, 2016 was sort of an aha moment for him, that this works,” Troy said.
Missy Ryan, John Wagner, Colby Itkowitz and John Hudson contributed to this report.