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 United States officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence.
The information came out overnight from White House officials who reiterated the president was unaware, according to the Associated Press news agency (AP).
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 at the time that he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.
The White House has said Trump wasn’t – and still hasn’t been – briefed on the intelligence assessments because they have not been fully verified. However, it is rare for intelligence to be confirmed without a shadow of a doubt before it is presented to top officials.
Bolton declined to comment on Monday when asked by the AP if he had briefed Trump about the matter in 2019. On Sunday, he suggested to NBC that Trump was claiming ignorance of Russia’s provocations to justify his administration’s lack of response.
“He can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it,” Bolton said.
The New York Times reported that officials provided a written briefing in late February to Trump laying out their conclusion that a Russian military intelligence unit offered and paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill US and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Mitch knew, and held Trump’s hand as he abandoned our service members. I’ve had family serve in each branch, and it is unspeakable that these two crooks would sacrifice our loved ones in endless wars. At home and abroad, they don’t care if we die.https://t.co/8YyHmOWzOm
— Charles Booker (@Booker4KY) June 27, 2020
The revelations cast new doubt on the White House’s efforts to distance Trump from the Russian intelligence assessments. The AP reported on Sunday that concerns about Russian bounties also were in a second written presidential daily briefing this year and that current National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien had discussed the matter with Trump. O’Brien denies doing that.
On Monday, O’Brien said that while the intelligence assessments regarding Russian bounties “have not been verified”, the administration has “been preparing should the situation warrant action”.
Democratic lawmakers who were briefed on the matter on Tuesday at the White House emerged from the meeting calling on new sanctions against Russia to deter what they called “malign” activities.
Congressman Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence committee, said Trump should not be courting Russian President Vladimir Putin by inviting him to a Group of Seven (G7) summit of leading industrial nations but rather should impose costs on Moscow.
“The president of the United States should not be inviting Russia into the G7 or G8. We should be considering what sanctions are appropriate to further deter Russia’s malign activities,” he told reporters after the White House briefing.
The administration’s earlier awareness of the Russian efforts raises additional questions about why Trump did not take punitive action against Moscow for efforts that put the lives of American service members at risk.
Officials said they did not consider the intelligence assessments in 2019 to be particularly urgent, given 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.
The intelligence that surfaced in early 2019 indicated Russian operatives had become more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and designated a “foreign terrorist organisation” in 2012 during the administration of then-President Barack Obama.
US Congress leaders: Did Trump know about Russia and the Taliban
Late Monday, the Pentagon issued a statement saying it was evaluating the intelligence but so far had “no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations”.
“Regardless, we always take the safety and security of our forces in Afghanistan – and around the world – most seriously and therefore continuously adopt measures to prevent harm from potential threats,” said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.
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 $500,000 in US currency. The funds bolstered the suspicions of the US intelligence community that Russians had offered money to Taliban militants and linked associations.
The White House contends the president was unaware of this development, too.
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 authorise any action.
US Marines stand during a change of command ceremony at Task Force Southwest military field in Shorab military camp of Helmand province, Afghanistan [File: Massoud Hossaini/AP Photo]
The intelligence in 2019 and 2020 surrounding Russian bounties was derived in part from debriefings of captured Taliban militants. Officials with knowledge of the matter told the AP that Taliban operatives from opposite ends of the country and from separate tribes offered similar accounts.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Russian intelligence officers had offered payments to the Taliban in exchange for targeting US and coalition forces.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to the Taliban’s chief negotiator, a spokesman for the insurgents said on Tuesday, but it was unknown whether there was any mention during their conversation of allegations about Russian bounties. Pompeo pressed the insurgents to reduce violence in Afghanistan and discussed ways of advancing a US-Taliban peace deal signed in February, the Taliban spokesman tweeted.
The US is investigating whether Americans died because of the Russian bounties. Officials are focused on an April 2019 attack on a US convoy. Three US Marines were killed after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armoured vehicles as they returned to Bagram Airfield, the largest US military installation in Afghanistan.
An Afghan boy watches a US soldier from 5-20 Infantry Regiment attached to 82nd Airborne on patrol in Zharay district in Kandahar province, Afghanistan [Baz Ratner/Reuters]
Three other service members and an Afghan contractor were wounded in the attack. As of April 2019, the attack was under a separate investigation, unrelated to the Russian bounties.
The officials who spoke to the AP also said they were looking closely at insider attacks from 2019 to determine if they were linked to Russian bounties.
“Hostile states’ use of proxies in war zones to inflict damage on US interests and troops is a constant, longstanding concern. [The] CIA will continue to pursue every lead; analyze the information we collect with critical, objective eyes; and brief reliable intelligence to protect US forces deployed around the world,” CIA Director Gina Haspel said in a statement that was critical of the leaks.
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Iran says ‘internal agents’ may be responsible for Natanz blast |NationalTribune.com
Tehran, Iran – The Iranian government said on Tuesday there are strong suspicions that “internal agents” played a role in a massive explosion that occurred at a key nuclear facility earlier this year. On July 2, a fire ripped through a building at Natanz, a major uranium enrichment site. Satellite images showed it caused the…
Tehran, Iran – The Iranian government said on Tuesday there are strong suspicions that “internal agents” played a role in a massive explosion that occurred at a key nuclear facility earlier this year.
On July 2, a fire ripped through a building at Natanz, a major uranium enrichment site. Satellite images showed it caused the roof to collapse and parts of the building were blackened by the blaze.
“One of the strong theories is based on internal agents being involved in the incident,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters at a news conference, according to the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA).
“The issue is being seriously reviewed by the country’s security organisations and we will announce the results after things are clear.”
It is the first time an Iranian official specifically pointed to the possibility of an inside job for the blast.
In late August, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization confirmed the damage to the facility was the result of “sabotage”.
“But how this explosion took place and with what materials … will be announced by security officials in due course,” spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said at the time, citing “security reasons” for not disclosing further information.
‘Sabotage is certain’
In early September, Kamalvandi announced Natanz saboteurs “have been identified” but refrained from discussing further details, including whether internal agents were complicit.
On Tuesday, Rabiei also reiterated that “sabotage is certain” but the incident still needs to be investigated due to its complexities.
The desert Natanz site, much of which is underground, is one of several Iranian facilities regularly monitored by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog.
Following the explosion, international media reports indicated Israel may have been behind the attack. Israel has been deliberately vague, neither confirming nor denying involvement while stressing the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran.
“Everyone can suspect us in everything and all the time, but I don’t think that’s correct,” Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said days after the attack.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also said “Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear capabilities”, adding to that end, “We take actions that are better left unsaid.”
September’s announcement that Iran knows the saboteurs behind the Natanz explosion came one week after IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi visited the country.
The trip was successful, leading to Iran granting access to two suspected former nuclear sites that the UN watchdog wished to inspect.
“In this present context, based on analysis of available information to the IAEA, the IAEA does not have further questions to Iran and further requests for access to locations other than those declared by Iran,” the IAEA and Iranian officials said in a joint statement following the visit.
In a speech during the 64th session of the General Conference of the IAEA on Monday, the president of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi referred to the Natanz incident.
“These malicious acts need to be condemned by the agency and member states,” he said via video conference, adding “Iran reserves its rights to protect its facilities and take necessary actions against any threat as appropriate.”
Salehi also urged the UN watchdog not to compromise its “impartiality, independence and professionalism”.
Iran, UN and the United States are locked in a major disagreement centred around the landmark 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers, which US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned in May 2018.
The US on Sunday declared it reinstated all UN sanctions on Iran, an announcement that was roundly rejected by the United Nations Security Council as lacking legal basis.
The US is trying to indefinitely extend an arms embargo on Iran that is set to expire in October as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the nuclear deal.
Iran, which has always maintained it never pursued nuclear weapons, accepted the nuclear deal that removed all UN sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
The US reneged on the deal, unilaterally imposing a harsh campaign of sanctions that have hit almost all the productive sectors of the Iranian economy. US sanctions have also targeted Iranian officials and organisations.
In response, starting exactly one year after US sanctions were imposed and other parties failed to guarantee economic benefits promised Iran under the deal, Iran started gradually scaling back its nuclear commitments.
Palestine quits Arab League role in protest over Israel deals |NationalTribune.com
Palestine was meant to chair Arab League meetings for next six months, but FM Riyad al-Maliki has declined the position.Palestine has quit its current chairmanship of Arab League meetings, the Palestinian foreign minister said on Tuesday, condemning as dishonourable any Arab agreement to establish formal ties with Israel. Palestinians see the deals that the United…
Palestine was meant to chair Arab League meetings for next six months, but FM Riyad al-Maliki has declined the position.Palestine has quit its current chairmanship of Arab League meetings, the Palestinian foreign minister said on Tuesday, condemning as dishonourable any Arab agreement to establish formal ties with Israel.
Palestinians see the deals that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed with Israel in Washington a week ago as a betrayal of their cause and a blow to their quest for an independent state in Israeli-occupied territory.
Earlier this month, the Palestinians failed to persuade the Arab League to condemn nations breaking ranks and normalising relations with Israel.
Palestine was supposed to chair Arab League meetings for the next six months, but Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told a news conference in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah that it no longer wanted the position.
“Palestine has decided to concede its right to chair the League’s council [of foreign ministers] at its current session. There is no honour in seeing Arabs rush towards normalisation during its presidency,” Maliki said.
In his remarks, he did not specifically name the UAE and Bahrain, Gulf Arab countries that share with Israel concern over Iran. He said Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit had been informed of the Palestinian decision.
Palestinians rally against Bahrain-Israel normalisation
The Palestinian leadership wants an independent state based on the de facto borders before the 1967 war, in which Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and annexed East Jerusalem.
Arab countries have long called for Israel’s withdrawal from illegally occupied land, a just solution for Palestinian refugees and a settlement that leads to the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state, in exchange for establishing ties with it.
In a new move addressing internal Palestinian divisions, officials from West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction and the Gaza-based Hamas movement were due to hold reconciliation talks in Turkey on Tuesday.
Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in 2007 from Fatah forces during a brief round of fighting. Differences over power-sharing have delayed implementation of unity deals agreed since then.
Source : Al Jazeera, News Agencies
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