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Spies and Commandos Warned Months Ago of Russian Bounties on U.S. Troops

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WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to officials briefed on the matter. They believed at least one U.S. troop death was the result of the bounties, two of the officials said.The crucial information that led the spies and commandos to focus on the bounties included the recovery of a large amount of American cash from a raid on a Taliban outpost that prompted suspicions. Interrogations of captured militants and criminals played a central role in making the intelligence community confident in its assessment that the Russians had offered and paid bounties in 2019, another official has said.Armed with this information, military and intelligence officials have been reviewing U.S. and other coalition combat casualties over the past 18 months to determine whether any were victims of the plot. Four Americans were killed in combat in early 2020, but the Taliban have not attacked U.S. positions since a February agreement to end the long-running war in Afghanistan.The details added to the picture of the classified intelligence assessment, which The New York Times reported Friday has been under discussion inside the Trump administration since at least March, and emerged as the White House confronted a growing chorus of criticism Sunday over its apparent failure to authorize a response to Russia.Trump defended himself by denying the Times report that he had been briefed on the intelligence, expanding on a similar White House rebuttal a day earlier. But leading congressional Democrats and some Republicans demanded a response to Russia that, according to officials, the administration has yet to authorize.The president "needs to immediately expose and handle this, and stop Russia's shadow war," Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on Twitter.Appearing on the ABC program "This Week," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she had not been briefed on the intelligence assessment and had asked for an immediate report to Congress. She accused Trump of wanting "to ignore" any charges against Russia."Russia has never gotten over the humiliation they suffered in Afghanistan, and now they are taking it out on us, our troops," she said of the Soviet Union's bloody war there in the 1980s. "This is totally outrageous. You would think that the minute the president heard of it, he would want to know more instead of denying that he knew anything."Spokespeople for the CIA, the director of national intelligence and the Pentagon declined to comment on the new findings. A National Security Council spokesman John L. Ullyot, said in a statement Sunday night, "The veracity of the underlying allegations continues to be evaluated."Trump said Sunday night on Twitter that "Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP." One senior administration official offered a similar explanation, saying that Trump was not briefed because the intelligence agencies had come to no consensus on the findings.But another official said there was broad agreement that the intelligence assessment was accurate, with some complexities because different aspects of the intelligence — including interrogations and surveillance data — resulted in some differences among agencies in how much confidence to put in each type.Though the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, claimed Saturday that Trump had not been briefed about the intelligence report, one U.S. official had told The Times that the report was briefed to the highest levels of the White House. Another said it was included in the President's Daily Brief, a compendium of foreign policy and national security intelligence compiled for Trump to read.McEnany did not challenge The Times' reporting on the existence of the intelligence assessment, a National Security Council interagency meeting about it in late March and the White House's inaction. Multiple other news organizations also subsequently reported on the assessment, and The Washington Post first reported Sunday that the bounties were believed to have resulted in the death of at least one U.S. service member.The officials briefed on the matter said the assessment had been treated as a closely held secret but that the administration expanded briefings about it over the last week — including sharing information about it with the British government, whose forces were among those said to have been targeted.Republicans in Congress demanded more information from the Trump administration about what happened and how the White House planned to respond.Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, said in a Twitter post Sunday: "If reporting about Russian bounties on U.S. forces is true, the White House must explain: 1. Why weren't the president or vice president briefed? Was the info in the PDB? 2. Who did know and when? 3. What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?"Multiple Republicans retweeted Cheney's post. Rep. Daniel Crenshaw, R-Texas, a former member of the Navy SEALs, amplified her message, tweeting, "We need answers."In a statement in response to questions, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, said he had long warned about Russia's work to undermine American interests in the Middle East and southwest Asia and noted that he wrote an amendment last year rebuking Trump's withdrawal of forces from Syria and Afghanistan."The United States needs to prioritize defense resources, maintain a sufficient regional military presence and continue to impose serious consequences on those who threaten us and our allies — like our strikes in Syria and Afghanistan against ISIS, the Taliban and Russian mercenary forces that threatened our partners," McConnell said.Aides for other top Republicans either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the top House Republican; Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee; and Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.In addition to saying he was never "briefed or told" about the intelligence report — a formulation that went beyond the White House denial of any formal briefing — Trump also cast doubt on the assessment's credibility, which statements from his subordinates had not.Specifically, he described the intelligence report as being about "so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians"; the report described bounties paid to Taliban militants by Russian military intelligence officers, not direct attacks. Trump also suggested that the developments could be a "hoax" and questioned whether The Times' sources — government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity — existed.Trump then pivoted to attack former Vice President Joe Biden, who criticized the president Saturday for failing to punish Russia for offering bounties to the Taliban, as well as Biden's son, Hunter, who is the target of unsubstantiated claims that he helped a Ukrainian energy firm curry favor with the Obama administration when his father was vice president."Nobody's been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration," Trump tweeted. "With Corrupt Joe Biden & Obama, Russia had a field day, taking over important parts of Ukraine — Where's Hunter?"U.S. officials said the Russian plot to pay bounties to Taliban fighters came into focus over the past several months after intelligence analysts and Special Operations forces put together key pieces of evidence.One official said the seizure of a large amount of American cash at one Taliban site got "everybody's attention" in Afghanistan. It was not clear when the money was recovered.Two officials said the information about the bounty hunting was "well-known" among the intelligence community in Afghanistan, including the CIA's chief of station and other top officials there, like the military commandos hunting the Taliban. The information was distributed in intelligence reports and highlighted in some of them.The assessment was compiled and sent up the chain of command to senior military and intelligence officials, eventually landing at the highest levels of the White House. The Security Council meeting in March came at a delicate time, as the coronavirus pandemic was becoming a crisis and prompting shutdowns around the country.A former U.S. official said the national security adviser, Robert C. O'Brien, and the president's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, would have been involved in any decision to brief Trump on Russia's activities, as would have the intelligence analyst who briefs the president. The director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, might have also weighed in, the former official said.McEnany cited those three senior officials in her statement saying the president had not been briefed.National security officials have tracked Russia's relationship with the Taliban for years and determined that Moscow has provided financial and material support to senior and regional Taliban leaders.While Russia has at times cooperated with the U.S. and appeared interested in Afghan stability, it often seems to work at crosscurrents with its own national interest if the result is damage to U.S. national interests, said a former senior Trump White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security assessments.Revenge is also a factor in Russia's support for the Taliban, the official said. Russia has been keen to even the scales after a bloody confrontation in 2018 in Syria, when a massive U.S. counterattack killed hundreds of Syrian forces along with Russian mercenaries nominally supported by the Kremlin."They are keeping a score sheet, and they want to punish us for that incident," the official said.Both Russia and the Taliban have denied the U.S. intelligence assessment.Pelosi said that if the president had not, in fact, been briefed, then the country should be concerned that his administration was afraid to share with him information regarding Russia.Pelosi said that the episode underscored Trump's accommodating stance toward Russia and that with him, "all roads lead to Putin.""This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score, denies being briefed," she said. "Whether he is or not, his administration knows, and some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan have been briefed and accept this report."John Bolton, Trump's former national security adviser, said on "This Week" that he was not aware of the intelligence assessment, but he questioned Trump's response on Twitter."What would motivate the president to do that, because it looks bad if Russians are paying to kill Americans and we're not doing anything about it?" Bolton said. "The presidential reaction is to say, 'It's not my responsibility. Nobody told me about it.' And therefore to duck any complaints that he hasn't acted effectively."Bolton said this summed up Trump's decision-making on national security issues. "It's just unconnected to the reality he's dealing with."This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company



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Downing Street advertises for £135k data science 'skunkworks' chief in latest Cummings shake-up

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Downing Street has placed an advert for £135,000 job to head up "skunkworks" in Number 10, in what appears the latest in Dominic Cummings' shakeup of Whitehall. The new job will be responsible for a new data science unit in Number 10, aimed to “transform” decision-making in government. A skunkworks is a term originating in America during WWII for a project developed by a small and loosely structured group focusing on radical innovation. The civil service advert says the role will involve leading a new "analytical unit known as ‘10ds" – which stands for "10 Data Science". It says: "The vision of 10ds is a skunkworks type organisation that builds innovative software to allow the PM to make data driven decisions and thereby transform government". Mr Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief aide, is known for his disdain for traditional civil servants. He has said his focus after Brexit will be the establishment of a British version of the US’s Advanced Projects Research Agency (Arpa). He recently instructed government advisers to read a book on Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock, as well as High Output Management by Andrew Grove. While the salary for the new role is advertised as up to £135,000, "outstanding" candidates could get more. The advert says the “newly created role will be responsible for establishing No10's quantitative ability” as well as advising the Prime Minister. It says the job presents an opportunity to work "at the heart' of government. Applications close on July 27. Earlier this year Mr Cummings placed an advert for “data scientists, project managers, policy experts and assorted weirdos” to apply for Downing Street jobs. Mr Cummings used his personal blog to invite applications from “true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole”. In a much-publicised post, he said: “If you want to figure out what characters around Putin might do, or how international criminal gangs might exploit holes in our border security, you don’t want more Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers and spread fake news about fake news.” Shortly after the blog advert was posted, a new Downing Street adviser Andrew Sabisky quit following reports of his controversial comments on pregnancies, eugenics and race.



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Philippines Lawmakers Vote to Shut Down Country’s Largest TV Network After Attacks From President Duterte

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(MANILA, Philippines) — Philippine lawmakers voted Friday to reject the license renewal of the country’s largest TV network, shutting down a major news provider that had been repeatedly threatened by the president over its critical coverage.

The House of Representatives committee on franchises, dominated by President Rodrigo Duterte’s political allies, voted 70-11 to reject a new 25-year franchise for ABS-CBN Corp. The National Telecommunications Commission had ordered the broadcaster to shut down in May after its old franchise expired. It halted broadcasting then, but the vote takes it off the air permanently.

Duterte and his allies had raised questions about the network’s compliance with the law and the terms of its franchise.

International media watchdogs condemned the closure of ABS-CBN, which was founded in 1953, as a major blow to press freedom.

Human Rights Watch said the lawmakers’ vote was “a grievous assault on press freedom in the country” and the greatest blow to media freedom caused by any government act since then dictator Ferdinand Marcos shut the broadcasting giant and other media outlets after declaring martial law in 1972.

“This move solidifies the tyranny of President Rodrigo Duterte, who accused ABS CBN of slights against him and politically targeted it for refusing to toe the government’s line and criticizing his so-called `war on drugs,’” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of the U.S.-based rights group.

Reflecting the extent of unease over the network’s shutdown, both the opposition and several key Duterte allies questioned efforts to close it. Concerns have also been raised by a diverse range of groups, including top business executives, left-wing activists and Catholic church officials.

ABS-CBN has more than 11,000 news and production personnel nationwide. Aside from reporting on the coronavirus, which has infected more than 50,000 people and killed 1,314 in the Philippines, it has provided food and medical aid to more than 2 million people, company officials said.

The network was last shuttered under the rule of Marcos and reopened after his 1986 ouster by an army-backed “people power” revolt.

Media watchdogs accuse Duterte and his government of muzzling independent media such as ABS-CBN that have reported critically on issues including his anti-drug crackdown, which has left thousands of mostly poor drug suspects dead. Duterte has accused the network of not airing his paid campaign ad and favoring a rival candidate in the 2016 election, allegations the company denied.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque says Duterte took a neutral position on ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal and left it to Congress to decide.

But ahead of the franchise expiration, the government’s solicitor-general, Jose Calida, asked the Supreme Court in February to revoke the franchises of ABS-CBN and a subsidiary in a separate attempt to shut the company for allegedly abusing its franchises and violating a constitutional prohibition on foreign investment in Philippine media. ABS-CBN denied the allegations.





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Nikki Haley positions herself to lead the post-Trump Republican party

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The ex-US ambassador to the UN is one of the few Trump officials to leave on good terms and has diligently built up a national profileNikki Haley has kept busy since leaving her post in the Trump administration as United States ambassador to the United Nations.A former governor of South Carolina, Haley is often mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate for either 2024 or 2028 – depending on whether Donald Trump wins re-election in November.There has even been speculation that Trump might switch out Vice-President Mike Pence for Haley as his running mate in the hopes of boosting his lagging approval numbers among the broader electorate, though there has been no strong evidence that that will happen.Either way she has positioned herself as a national leader within the Republican party.A rare woman of color in the party’s senior ranks, she has been fundraising for Republican congressional candidates as well as in the Senate and gubernatorial arena. She has set up a non-profit organization to boost her policy priorities. She has continued to pen editorials on foreign policy. And she has retained a small, tightly knit orbit of advisers.Haley is one of the few high-ranking Republicans to leave the Trump administration on good terms. She has pledged to campaign aggressively for the president and has echoed some of the same arguments Trump has made on national topics such as cancel culture, defunding police forces and statue removal, although the tone and frequency between Trump and Haley vary dramatically. At other times she has kept her distance.After serving in the Trump administration, some top-level officials have receded from public life, taking jobs at thinktanks and other academic institutions or retiring outright. But former and current aides to Haley see her recent moves as a carefully executed plan to stay involved in key Republican policy circles and the national discourse.“When she left the administration she told the president that she wanted to stay engaged and promote good public policy,” said Tim Chapman, the executive director of Haley’s Stand for America non-profit group, the primary vehicle for Haley’s policy-related initiatives. “SFA is partly a platform for her to do that type of voice, to be engaged in public policy.”Stand for America is composed of a small team of about six people, including Chapman. The team has a weekly Zoom call with Haley and Chapman spends much of his time coalition-building and working with outside groups and policymakers.Haley often weighs in on foreign policy or “Democrats’ embrace of socialism” as she did in a February op-ed for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial section. Warning about advancing socialism is a favorite topic for Haley and her organization. A recent mailer sent out to supporters asked them to participate in a “REFERENDUM ON SOCIALISM”. The mailer went on to tick off some liberal policy proposals like free college tuition or the Green New Deal proposed by the Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.“We’re going to stay focused on that because even though [presumptive Democratic presidential nominee] Joe Biden got the nomination we still think the energy in the party is with the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren wing,” Chapman said.Haley has fundraised for almost a dozen Republican Senate candidates, many of them in tough re-election races, and has been a special guest at Republican Governors Association (RGA) events. Last November, Haley authored a book, With All Due Respect, billed as “a first-hand perspective on major national and international matters”. The book covers the end of her governorship as well as her time as ambassador.All this activity has generated speculation that Haley is taking a textbook approach to running for president. She has foreign policy experience through her time at the United Nations. She has executive and domestic policy experience through almost two terms as governor. “Nikki Haley’s background as a governor and UN ambassador will make her formidable if she chooses to run in 2024,” said Jon Thompson, a top Republican strategist and a former longtime communications director of the RGA.“She has a strong résumé of actual governance and international experience, would likely appeal to female suburban voters who Republicans desperately need to attract to win future elections, and has a solid conservative record from her time as governor. Twenty-twenty-four is still a long way off, but she’s making all the right moves now to be in a good position later.”The knock on Haley is that she has been too calculating in her recent jobs. Democratic foreign policy officials said Haley delegated too much of the job of UN ambassador to her deputies and that all her speeches were political. In his recent book, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton framed Haley as out of her depth and more focused on using her ambassadorship to raise her profile.Haley has surrounded herself with operatives who could lead a presidential campaign. The most commonly mentioned Republican strategist is Jon Lerner, who served as a deputy to Haley at the UN. Chapman previously ran the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation giving him strong ties to influential experts and groups within the Republican party.The option of running for president partially depends on whether Trump wins re-election.“If the president’s re-elected I think she’ll keep doing what she’s doing for two years and then start running in earnest,” a former Haley aide said. “If Biden wins it’ll actually make it a bit easier because then she can kind of pound away at Biden from the moment he’s inaugurated and then turn that momentum into a presidential campaign.”Haley has had to stamp out persistent speculation that she could rejoin the Trump administration as vice-president. The rumor is not out of the realms of possibility. In 2012 Barack Obama’s re-election team looked at switching Biden with Hillary Clinton as the then president’s running mate but that idea was ultimately nixed. For Trump, the hope with putting Haley on the ticket is that she could win over key constituencies Trump is losing.Some Republicans in the Trump campaign’s orbit wondered if that was happening when the campaign team serving Pence was gutted. But Haley has repeatedly denied any cooperation or rivalry between her and Pence. In August she tweeted “enough of the false rumors. Vice President Pence has been a dear friend of mine for years. He has been a loyal and trustworthy VP to the President. He has my complete support.”If Trump loses, the Republican primary field for 2024 might get crowded. The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and Pence have all been mentioned as potential presidential candidates.When Haley and Pence were both governors their names were floating around as potential RGA vice-chair, recalled former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who was then the sitting vice-chair and poised to take the chairmanship. Walker has strong ties to both Pence and Haley.Walker remembers that in 2016 Haley called him to ask about the vice-chairmanship. This was before it was clear Pence would be vice-president. Walker noted that Pence might also be interested in the vice-chairmanship. A day later Haley called Walker again saying, “I talked to Mike, he’s fine.” Haley ended up becoming vice-chair for a short time before leaving the governorship to become UN ambassador.



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