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A career CIA officer on Russian bounty intelligence — and possible leaks

The NewsHour has reported that Russian military intelligence provided financial incentives to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- and that this intelligence was always briefed up to senior U.S. government officials. But the White House say President Trump was unaware of the possible Russian bounty payments. Nick Schifrin talks to Douglas London, who had a 34-year career in the CIA.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we return to intelligence reports that Russia was making bounty payments to the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, we have reported that Russian military intelligence provided financial incentives to the Taliban to target U.S. troops and that Russian support to the Taliban was always a priority for intelligence officials and was always briefed up to senior officials.

    To understand more about Russia's involvement in Afghanistan and how raw intelligence becomes a product for the president and other senior officials, we turn to Douglas London, a 34-year veteran of the CIA's clandestine service. He retired last year as the CIA's chief of counterterrorism in South and Southwest Asia, which includes Afghanistan.

    Douglas London, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    U.S. officials first talked about Russian support for the Taliban back in 2018 and 2019. We have reported that included bounty payments. What's your understanding of the increase in Russian support to the Taliban over the last year or two?

  • Douglas London:

    Clearly, there's great interest and always has been in Russia's posture in Afghanistan. It's always a high-priority collection requirement.

    And as the press has reported — and I think former Afghanistan-American forces General Commander Nicholson spoke in 2018 — there's been evidence of Russian support, financially, militarily, to the Taliban militants.

    The press reporting is pretty consistent with what we would expect, that the Taliban and the Russian relationship might get strengthened as the Russians are looking to maneuver for a post-U.S. place in Afghanistan.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We reported some of the initial intelligence about these bounty payments was made on the discovery of money within Taliban fighters' control and interviews of Taliban fighters, but that's only one piece of the puzzle.

    The New York Times is reporting today the U.S. also knew about bank transfers from Russian military intelligence to the Taliban leadership. So, is that the other piece of a puzzle that the intelligence community would be looking for and would need to understand what was going on?

  • Douglas London:

    The U.S. has always been collecting from fighters in Afghanistan, trying to develop sources within the Taliban.

    Obviously, as has been reported in the press, there's detainee interviews after those are taken into custody by Afghan forces or temporarily by U.S. forces. The reporting in the press suggests that some of the reporting (INAUDIBLE) level fighters.

    But low-level fighters wouldn't be dealing directly with the Russians, obviously, for the purposes of op security. You wouldn't have Russians running around with bags of money dispensing it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How important was all this information? And how is it packaged as intelligence for senior officials, including the president?

  • Douglas London:

    Raw intelligence comes in from a variety of means HUMINT, human intelligence, that the CIA is primary on as a civilian external collector.

    We have seen how NSA is taking in signals intelligence and digital information. There's numerous intel agencies out there collecting it. And it's all sort of put together by the analysts, who are reviewing it, looking for the strengths, the credibility, and putting it together in products that will go up to consumers, policy-makers, such as the president.

    Looking at press reporting that suggests that there was a president's daily brief on the matter, I believe, on the 27th of February, according to the press. It would make a great deal of sense, because, as you recall, the United States and the Taliban signed their agreement on the 29th of February.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Of course, I have to mention here that the White House, the administration as a whole, is denying that the president was specifically briefed.

    And the White House said today that intelligence wasn't briefed to the president because there was no consensus and there was — quote — "no strategic decision" to be made.

    Are those the only times that the president is briefed about this kind of intelligence?

  • Douglas London:

    Unfortunately, that reflects the nature of the currently strained relationship between the White House and the intelligence community, and also a lack of understanding and appreciation for the intelligence product.

    We don't provide information to the president after we have confirmed it. We really want to use the president's daily brief to put things on the president's radar that are important, that require his attention.

    And we will put it in context as well. Even if there's lack of great consensus among the community, that's going to be reflected in the products briefed to the president.

    So, the president will be advised. And something as significant and sensational really as Russian material and financial assistance to the Taliban for targeting U.S. troops would have been brought to his attention, with all the proper caveats and qualifiers. We wouldn't wait for there to be consensus.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, lastly, let me play you what White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said today specifically about leakers.

  • Secretary Kayleigh McEnany:

    These are rogue intelligence officers who are imperiling our troops' lives. We will not be able to get very — very likely not be able to get a consensus on this intelligence because of what was leaked to The New York Times.

  • Question:

    Members of the I.C. are going after Trump; is that what you're saying?

  • Secretary Kayleigh McEnany:

    It very possibly could be. And if that's the case, it is absolutely despicable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The director of the CIA, the director of national intelligence, the national security adviser have all said in the last 12 hours or so that they have an objection to the leaks themselves.

    Is that not a major problem, the leaking of intelligence that seems to be classified?

  • Douglas London:

    I think it's reasonable to assume that the president and the White House is going to try to change the narrative on this.

    Leaks are a great danger. They compromise sources. But think about the topic we're speaking to. We're speaking to bounties. So if the Taliban or the Russians wanted bounties, that means they want people to know that there's an incentive and award for killing Americans, even if the Russians were disguising their hand.

    While I don't condone leaks, under the circumstances, and I could imagine those who provided the information felt a bit of frustration that, having informed principals and the president of the threat from Russian incentives, financial incentives, and the dismissal of that intelligence, some of those folks might have felt that they and their comrades were being placed in harm's way by an administration that wasn't as concerned for their interests as much as their own political interests.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Douglas London, thank you very much.

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