Donald Trump has a fresh Russia problem: Unread intelligence and a missing strategy

US lawmakers on Tuesday emerged from closed briefings to challenge why Donald Trump and his advisors failed to recognise the seriousness of the intelligence assessment.

The New York Times July 02, 2020 06:41:47 IST
Donald Trump has a fresh Russia problem: Unread intelligence and a missing strategy

The intelligence finding that Russia was most likely paying a bounty for the lives of US soldiers in Afghanistan has evoked a strange silence from President Donald Trump and his top national security officials on the question of what to do about the Kremlin’s wave of aggression.

Trump insists he never saw the intelligence, although it was part of the President’s Daily Brief just days before a peace deal was signed with the Taliban in February.

The White House says it was not even appropriate for him to be briefed because the president only sees “verified” intelligence — prompting derision from officials who have spent years working on the daily brief and say it is most valuable when filled with dissenting interpretations and alternative explanations.

The administration’s defences took a new turn Wednesday, when national security advisor Robert C O’Brien told Fox News that the CIA officer who delivered in-person intelligence summaries to the president had not flagged it for his attention.

But it does not require a top-secret clearance and access to the government’s most classified information to see that the list of Russian aggressions in recent weeks rivals some of the worst days of the Cold War.

There have been new cyber attacks on Americans working from home to exploit vulnerabilities in their corporate systems and continued concern about new playbooks for Russian actors seeking to influence the November election. Off the coast of Alaska, Russian jets have been testing US air defences, sending US warplanes scrambling to intercept them.

It is all part of what Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, the majority leader, said Monday was “the latest in a series of escalations from [Vladimir] Putin’s regime.”

Yet missing from all this is a strategy for pushing back — old-fashioned deterrence, to pluck a phrase from the depths of the Cold War — that could be employed from Afghanistan to Ukraine, from the deserts of Libya to the vulnerable voter registration rolls in battleground states.

Officially, in Trump’s national security strategy, Russia is described as a “revisionist power” whose efforts to peel away NATO allies and push the United States out of West Asia have to be countered. But the paper strategy differs significantly from the reality.

There are at least two Russia strategies in this divided administration. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, usually so attuned to Trump, speaks for the hawkish wing: He came to the Department of State podium a few weeks ago to declare that Crimea, annexed by Russia six years ago, will never be recognised as Russian territory.

Then there is the president, who “repeatedly objected to criticising Russia and pressed us not to be so critical of Russia publicly,” his former national security advisor, John Bolton, notes in his recent memoir. A parade of other former national security aides have emerged, bruised, with similar reports.

Yet the nature of intelligence — always incomplete and not always definitive — gives Trump an opening to dismiss anything that challenges his worldview.

“By definition, intelligence means looking at pieces of a puzzle,” said Glenn S Gerstell, who retired this year as general counsel of the National Security Agency, before the Russian bounty issue was front and centre. “It’s not unusual to have inconsistencies. And the President’s Daily Brief, not infrequently, would say that there is no unanimity in the intelligence community, and would explain the dissenting views or the lack of corroboration.”

That absence of clarity has not slowed Trump when it comes to placing new sanctions on China and Iran, who pose very different kinds of challenges to US power.

Yet the president made no apparent effort to sort through evidence on Russia, even before his most recent call with President Vladimir Putin, when he invited the Russian leader to a Group of Seven meeting planned for September in Washington. Russia has been banned from the group since the Crimea invasion, and Trump was essentially restoring it to the G-8 over the objection of many of America’s closest allies.

The White House will not say whether he would have acted differently had he been aware of the Russian bounty for American lives.

“If you’re going to be on the phone with Putin, this is something you ought to know,” said Representative Adam Schiff, D-California, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who managed the impeachment trial against Trump. “This is something you ought to know if you’re inviting Russia back into the G-8.”

It is just the latest example of how, in Trump’s “America First” approach, he rarely talks about Russia strategy other than to say it would be good to be friends. He relies on his gut and talks about his “good relationship” with Putin, echoing a line he often uses about Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator.

So it is little surprise that after three-and-a-half years, there is often hesitation to bring Trump damning intelligence about Russia.

And in this case, there was another element: concern inside the White House about any intelligence findings that might interfere with the administration’s announcement of a peace deal with the Taliban.

After months of broken-off negotiations, Trump was intent on announcing the accord in February, as a prelude to declaring that he was getting Americans out of Afghanistan. As one senior official described it, the evidence about Russia could have threatened that deal because it suggested that after 18 years of war, Trump was letting Russia chase the last U.S. troops out of the country.

The warning to Trump appeared in the president’s briefing book — which Bolton said almost always went unread — in late February. On 28 February, the president issued a statement that a signing ceremony for the Afghan deal was imminent.

“When I ran for office,” Trump said in the statement, “I promised the American people I would begin to bring our troops home and see to end this war. We are making substantial progress on that promise.”

He dispatched Pompeo to witness the signing with the Taliban. And as Trump noted in a tweet over the weekend, there have been no major attacks on US troops since. (Instead, the attacks have focused on Afghan troops and civilians.)

Russia’s complicity in the bounty plot came into sharper focus Tuesday as The New York Times reported that US officials intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account, according to officials familiar with the intelligence.

The United States has accused Russia of providing general support to the Taliban before. But the newly-revealed information about financial transfers bolstered other evidence of the plot, including detainee interrogations, and helped reduce an earlier disagreement among intelligence analysts and agencies over the reliability of the detainees.

Lawmakers on Tuesday emerged from closed briefings on the matter to challenge why Trump and his advisors failed to recognise the seriousness of the intelligence assessment.

“I am concerned that they did not pursue it as aggressively or comprehensively as perhaps they should have,” said Representative Adam Smith, D-Washington, who heads the House Armed Services Committee. “There was clearly evidence that the Russians were paying the bounties.”

The oddity, of course, is that despite Trump’s deference to the Russians, relations between Moscow and Washington under the Trump administration have nose-dived.

That was clear in the stiff sentence handed down recently in Moscow against Paul Whelan, a former US Marine, after his conviction on espionage charges in what the US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan called a “mockery of justice.”

Even Russian State television now regularly mocks Trump as a buffoon, very different from its gushing tone during the 2016 presidential election.

David E Sanger and Eric Schmitt c.2020 The New York Times Company

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