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Expert Analysis

The Russian bounties and the danger of politicizing intelligence

by 14Charlie Jun 29, 2020
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The Russian bounties and the danger of politicizing intelligence

SOFREP recently identified the problems surrounding the bombshell New York Times piece claiming a secret Russian military intelligence unit was offering Afghan militants bounties to kill US troops. Namely, if the intelligence is true and accurate, why was no action taken to hold Russia accountable?

This damning intelligence report was allegedly briefed to President Trump in March, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem and created a menu of response options around that time. Similar reporting from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post corroborate the New York Times’ claims.

As the veracity of the intelligence cited by the New York Times and other outlets is determined, there are several critical questions that must be asked regarding the President and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe’s claims that the administration was not briefed on these critical proceedings.

When the New York Times story broke, Trump administration critics were quick to (appropriately) question the article’s claims that the administration was briefed on Russian activities in March and had not yet taken any action. Such inaction in the face of blatantly malicious Russian activity is inexcusable for the nation’s Commander in Chief, and further emboldens an already aggressive Russian influence campaign against the West.

Indeed, any Russian efforts to incentivize the killing of American and coalition forces (in Afghanistan) would be a “significant and provocative escalation of what American and Afghan officials have said is Russian support for the Taliban.” Most critically, this would be the first confirmed time the Russian unit was known to have so blatantly worked to target American forces.

The unit, assessed to be an elite arm of the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, is known as Unit 29155, and is tied to several aggressive Russian destabilization campaigns targeting the West. Known and attributed operations conducted by Unit 29155 include the March 2018 nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury, England, of former GRU defector Sergei Skripal; a 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro; and a 2015 poisoning of a Bulgarian arms manufacturer.

Unit 29155, which has been operational for over a decade, executes a Kremlin-directed charter to destabilize the West “through subversion, sabotage, and assassination.” Online investigations firm Bellingcat has conducted extensive research revealing the tactics, tradecraft, and activities of its operatives, which the author highly recommends for detailed open-source intelligence-derived background on the subject.

The GRU is an adept — if at times, blunt — force with which to reckon. Indeed, American intelligence officials attribute the GRU as the central actor in Moscow’s covert efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, when two GRU cyber units “hacked into the Democratic Party servers and then used WikiLeaks to publish embarrassing internal communications.”

As this situation unfolds in real-time, it remains unclear whether or not the veracity of the original intelligence reporting of Unit 29155 activities can be confirmed. The New York Times piece levies serious allegations against both Russia and the present administration. Given previous and independently confirmed covert Russian intelligence operations targeting the U.S., to include threatening the integrity of its democratic processes, this is no light matter. Therefore, regardless of audience, base, or ideology, it seems unlikely the Times would post such a story without extensive vetting and corroboration of sources.

Indeed, other Western intelligence agencies, namely the British, have also corroborated the New York Times’ claims of Russian activities. Further, the Washington Post recently reported that the GRU’s activities did indeed lead to U.S. deaths in Afghanistan, although SOFREP has not independently verified this claim. Given the classified nature of the information, it is also unlikely further details will be forthcoming from the administration or office of the Director of National Intelligence. Therefore, it must be assumed the intelligence regarding Russian activities is indeed true, until additional information is obtained suggesting otherwise.

It is thus that several critical questions must be posed. As several members of Congress and former Intelligence Community members have asked: why were the President and Vice President not briefed on the intelligence? Was the information included in their President’s Daily Brief? If the President and Vice President were unaware of the intelligence, who was? What principals, staffers, or other members of the National Security Council were aware of this information, as the Times report indicates? And most critically, what actions have been taken to check Russian aggression and focus energies on holding Putin accountable for dastardly employing covert assassination and sabotage mechanisms directly targeting Americans?

Furthermore, and most poignant to the title of this article, what position does DNI John Ratcliffe maintain through the course of his official duties amidst these allegations? As SOFREP previously reported, the position of DNI requires speaking truth to power and ensuring the interests of the Intelligence Community are accurately and honestly represented to the administration and National Security Council.

This mandate becomes seemingly difficult when, at first glance, it appears Mr. Ratcliffe used his position to support the President’s claims (of having not been briefed on the Russian activities) rather than offer professional, non-partisan clarification of the circumstances. Naturally, Mr. Ratcliffe has an obligation to support the President. It is also typical government practice to neither confirm nor deny matters of great sensitivity, such as this.

However, if the intelligence reports are true, as we are led to believe, the observer is left with the dissatisfaction of receiving no such clarification, insight, or inclination as to the veracity of the claims. Indeed, it is notable both the President and the DNI stated the President had not been briefed on the intelligence. Critically, they did not state the claims were not true or that the reports were false. As this intelligence becomes more widely known and corroborated through other outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Sky News, and others, the lack of U.S. action condemning Russian aggression grows more questionable.

Such are the insights available to the casual observer. The dichotomy presented between reportedly significant intelligence claims and clear denials acknowledging receipt of it by both the President and his appointed DNI, appears at least worthy of review. Until such time as additional context is learned or it is found the intelligence reporting is inaccurate, the questions posed above demand answers.

Further, it is the author’s inclination to continuously and critically assess the extent of any politicization of intelligence that the President must hear. As SOFREP has previously reported, the U.S. can ill-afford to not impose costs on Russian aggression. The politicization of intelligence from the office of the DNI further exacerbates any challenges the seventeen-member Intelligence Community faces in accurately keeping the executive branch, by way of the President and the National Security Council, apprised of critical occurrences such as this.

Thanks for listening.

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