With Follow-Up Report, NYT Subtly Undercuts Key Aspects Of Its Russia-Taliban Bounty Scoops

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Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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  • The New York Times published a report Monday that subtly undercut aspects of its reporting last week regarding intelligence indicating that a Russian spy unit paid the Taliban to attack American troops.
  • The newspaper reported on Friday that the shocking intelligence had been briefed to President Trump in March. The story suggested with little equivocation that U.S. officials believed the intelligence.
  • But on Monday, the Times reported only that the intelligence was included in a Feb. 27 Presidential Daily Brief commissioned for Trump. The paper also included more detailed reporting about disagreement in the intelligence community about the accuracy of the Russia-Taliban intelligence. 

A report for The New York Times on Monday undercut a bombshell story that the newspaper published last week that said President Donald Trump had been briefed on intelligence that a Russian military spy unit was paying Taliban forces to attack American service members.

The new report is subtly different from the Times’ scoop from Friday, which said that “the intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump” in late March.

The original Times story also suggested that there was consensus in the intelligence community regarding the veracity of the Russian intelligence.

“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,” reads the second paragraph of the story from Friday.

But those definitive statements that Trump was directly briefed on the intelligence, and that U.S. officials had largely verified it, were gone from the Times’ follow-up piece on Monday, replaced with more nuanced reporting about White House briefings and the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of the Russia-Taliban information.

The differences in the reporting were not lost on some observers, including conservative radio host and columnist Hugh Hewitt.

The newspaper reported in its new story that intelligence about the alleged bounty program was included in a written Presidential Daily Briefing that was created for Trump on Feb. 27.

The story, which cited anonymous U.S. officials, said that it was unclear whether Trump saw the intelligence or whether it was orally briefed to him. The Times also noted that Trump receives oral intelligence briefings two or three times a week. (RELATED: GOP Lawmaker Blasts NYT Over Russia-Taliban Story)

The follow-up story also said that there is some disagreement in the U.S. intelligence community about the strength of the intelligence, which was reportedly collected from captured Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

“Officials said there was disagreement among intelligence officials about the strength of the evidence about the suspected Russian plot and the evidence linking the attack on the Marines to the suspected Russian plot,” The Times reported Monday.

The paper also reported that the National Security Agency “has been more skeptical” about interrogations and other human intelligence.

The original Times piece generated outcry from Democrats who accused Trump of ignoring intelligence showing that Russian intelligence was paying bounties to Taliban fighters to kill American service members. Some Democrats asserted that Trump ignored the intelligence out of fear of provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But additional reporting over the past few days, mixed with on-the-record denials from White House and intelligence officials, suggest that the intelligence was far less definitive than initially portrayed by The Times and other news outlets.

White House officials disputed that the president was briefed on the intelligence. They also quibbled with the Times’ initial suggestion that the intelligence was verified and that the White House had failed to take action against Russia in retaliation.

The Pentagon also disputed reporting that the intelligence was verified, saying in a rare statement Monday that “to date, DOD has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports.”

Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, issued a statement Monday night that said that Trump was not briefed on the intelligence.

“Because the allegations in recent press articles have not been verified or substantiated by the Intelligence Community, President Trump had not been briefed on the items. Nevertheless, the Administration, including the National Security Council staff, have been preparing should the situation warrant action,” he said in a statement.

The Times did not respond to a request for comment about the differences in its two scoops.

The Associated Press also reported on Monday that White House officials were aware of the intelligence as of early 2019, far earlier than previously known, and that then-national security adviser John Bolton spoke with Trump about it.

Citing U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence, the AP reported that top White House officials were aware in early 2019 of intelligence that Russia may have secretly offered bounties to Taliban fighters.

“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 he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019,” the AP reported.

According to the AP, Bolton and other White House officials did not consider the intelligence immediately actionable, because it had not been corroborated.

But Bolton suggested on Sunday that reports about the Russian unit’s bounty was news to him.

Asked in an NBC News interview, Bolton urged caution in interpreting the story. Bolton, who is heavily critical of his former boss in a forthcoming memoir, left open the possibility that Trump was intentionally being vague about what he knows about the alleged Russian bounty program. He also offered no indication that Trump was aware of the intelligence.

“I’ve never recalled a circumstance where the president himself goes out of his way to say he wasn’t briefed on something. We may be in the, you know, what the definition of “is” is here. When you say “briefed,” does that mean he’s never been told of anything about it?

“We don’t know the quality of the intelligence or the extent of it. If it does go back to March, that raises other questions. And the key point is if there’s any accuracy to it, if the Russians have actually been paying to see Americans killed, that is a very, very serious matter.”

Bolton also said he often filtered out intelligence briefed to Trump.

“I tried during my tenure at the White House to read as much intelligence as I could. That doesn’t mean I passed all of it on to Trump or to others. I think it’s just important to understand there needs to be a filter for any president, maybe particularly for this president.”

“But, of course, he can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it.”

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