The Russian Bounties Story Turns Out to Be Trash Journalism

President Trump with wife Melania wait to welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in Washington, D.C., September 15, 2020.
(Al Drago/Reuters)

How many times will people have to fall for this before they learn?

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE

H
onestly opposing Donald Trump should be easy. There is much to choose from in the president’s personality, character, public words, and public conduct, and many scandals and policy decisions to pick from. Yet somehow, Democrats and the media keep on betting heavily on stories that turn out, on closer inspection, to range from unproven to grossly exaggerated to outright fabrications. There’s no Postal Service conspiracy to vanish mailboxes and sabotage the election. Just yesterday, I noted the gulf between claims that ICE is mass-sterilizing immigrant women and the actual complaint, which raises secondhand alarms about a single doctor at a single facility. And now, we see the collapse of the “Russian bounties paid to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan” story.

New York Times reporters Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt, Michael Schwirtz, and Mujib Mashal broke the heavily hyped story in late June: “Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says”:

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter. The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.  [Emphasis added]

The story was based entirely on unidentified sources — “officials spoke on the condition of anonymity” — but saying that this was something “the United States concluded months ago” would lead many readers to think that this was a strongly supported consensus finding of the intelligence community. Two days later, a Times report by Savage, Mashal, Schmitt, Rukmini Callimachi, Adam Goldman, Fahim Abed, Najim Rahim, Helene Cooper and Nicholas Fandos — we’re now up to ten reporters from the Times, if you’re keeping score — not only assured us that the claim was supported by hard evidence, but also strongly implied that the bounties had actually been paid:

American officials intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account, evidence that supported their conclusion that Russia covertly offered bounties for killing U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, according to three officials familiar with the intelligence. Though the United States has accused Russia of providing general support to the Taliban before, analysts concluded from other intelligence that the transfers were most likely part of a bounty program that detainees described during interrogations. . . . The intercepts bolstered the findings gleaned from the interrogations, helping reduce an earlier disagreement among intelligence analysts and agencies over the reliability of the detainees. The disclosures further undercut White House officials’ claim that the intelligence was too uncertain to brief President Trump.

James Gordon Meek, Elizabeth Thomas, and Luis Martinez of ABC News reported, “Russian intelligence officers offered to pay Taliban militants to kill American troops in Afghanistan over the past year, amid peace talks to end the 18-year war there, a military official confirmed to ABC News,” but added the caveat that “‘there is no way to really confirm if it actually worked,’ the military official, who’s not authorized to speak on the record about such matters, told ABC News.”

Democrats and their pundit class jumped on the story as fact, and tended to gloss over the gap between reports that bounties were offered and that they were actually paid as an ongoing program. Joe Biden instantly tore into Trump:

His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale. It’s betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way. It’s a betrayal of every single American family with a loved one serving in Afghanistan or anywhere overseas.

Nancy Pelosi told ABC’s This Week, “This is as bad as it gets. And yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score, denies being briefed. Whether he is or not, his administration knows, and our allies — some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan — had been briefed and accept this report.”

In his convention speech, Biden leaned on the story to draw a contrast: “Under President Biden, America will not turn a blind eye to Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers.” He was not the only speaker at the convention to rely on the Russian-bounties story. John Kerry thundered, “Donald Trump pretends Russia didn’t attack our elections and now he does nothing about Russia putting a bounty on our troops.” Air Force veteran Jack Weinstein asserted, “The Russians offered bounties on U.S. soldiers. I was shocked when I read that. But the president didn’t even asked Vladimir Putin about it. That’s un-American,” to which former Obama defense secretary Chuck Hagel responded, “There’s something wrong with that. I mean, that’s a dereliction of duty. You’re failing the troops. You’re failing this country.”

Ben Rhodes was still touting the story yesterday morning:

Get Jim Geraghty’s tour of the political news of the day.

Of course, U.S. intelligence hears things all the time that may or may not be true. Sifting the reports that are reliable from those that are either uncertain or unlikely is a tricky job requiring careful attention to the facts and knowledge of the local context of the sourcing. It is all but impossible for even the most informed news consumer to evaluate anonymously reported allegations drawn from raw intelligence, especially in a place such as Afghanistan. This is why it is so hazardous to report solely from anonymous sources who can never face accountability for being wrong, and so crucial for reporting on intelligence to be honest and clear about whether or not journalists are reporting a widely accepted finding as opposed to an unproven theory kicking around the intel community.

Here, the Times was not honest. NBC News’ Courtney Kube and Ken Dilanian have now reported that no such consensus intelligence finding ever existed. This is especially noteworthy coming from Dilanian, who has regularly produced his own credulous reporting of anti-Trump stories. The NBC report is based on military sources, including comments on the record from General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for the entire region:

 [General McKenzie] says a detailed review of all available intelligence has not been able to corroborate the existence of such a program. “It just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me” . . . The U.S. continues to hunt for new information on the matter, he said. “We continue to look for that evidence. I just haven’t seen it yet. But . . . it’s not a closed issue.” McKenzie’s comments, reflecting a consensus view among military leaders, underscores the lack of certainty around a narrative that has been accepted as fact by Democrats and other Trump critics, including presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has cited Russian bounties in attacks on President Donald Trump…. Senior military officials say they don’t believe the intelligence is strong enough to act on. Echoing comments in July by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, McKenzie said that if he could establish that the Russians were offering payments to kill Americans, he would push to forcefully respond. But the intelligence is far from conclusive, he said. [Emphasis added]

In other words, not only is there not a consensus intelligence finding, there is a consensus view among the military brass that the story hasn’t been proven. That does not mean it is impossible; many things are possible. Russian support for the Taliban while the Taliban have been at war with us for 19 years is already well-known, and it is certainly plausible that Russian intelligence might go further than that. But every report on this story has, properly, treated the possible offer or payment of bounties as a significant and newsworthy escalation. The bounties angle has been central to the Biden campaign’s argument. It would, by any traditional definition, be casus belli justifying war between the United States and Russia — indeed, it would be proof that Russia is already formally at war with the United States. And it turns out to be unsubstantiated.

It is deeply, profoundly irresponsible to publish this sort of thing. The Times threw ten reporters at this story and could not tell it honestly, because it fit too neatly with the story the paper and its readers wanted to hear about Donald Trump. How many times will people have to fall for this before they learn?

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