WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he was not told about a reported Russian effort to get the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers because many U.S. intelligence officials doubted its veracity, a stance contradicted by four U.S. and European sources and by its inclusion in a widely read CIA report in May.
“We never heard about it because intelligence never found it to be of that level,” he told Fox Business Network. “The intelligence people... many of them didn’t believe it happened at all.”
The four U.S. and European government sources, who are familiar with intelligence reporting, said that in recent weeks the United States had acquired fresh reporting backing up the allegations that Russia had encouraged Taliban-affiliated militants to kill U.S. and allied soldiers in Afghanistan.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the latest information caused U.S. government experts to discount the National Security Agency’s questioning of the allegations.
One of those sources and a fifth person familiar with the matter said the U.S. intelligence community is confident Russia encouraged the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan but there was internal debate over whether Moscow had actually paid bounties.
A sixth person familiar with the matter said the CIA was sufficiently confident of the intelligence to include it in May in its daily flagship publication, the CIA World Intelligence Review, known informally as “The Wire.”
Its inclusion there “undermines the administration’s entire claim that it is not finished, it’s not verified and it wasn’t a fully complete product,” said this person, who asked not to be identified further because of the sensitivity of the matter.
White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters the United States will respond strongly if it is confirmed that Russia paid militants to kill U.S. and allied soldiers in Afghanistan, without providing details.
The New York Times, which broke the story last week, has reported that Trump received a written briefing on the matter in February.
O’Brien said a CIA civil servant decided not to brief Trump verbally “because she didn’t have confidence in the intelligence.”
He declined to say whether Trump received anything in writing.
“These are important allegations that, if they’re verified I can guarantee you the president will take strong action,” O’Brien told reporters outside the White House, though he added that Washington may never know the truth of the matter because of media leaks.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said the United States must immediately impose sanctions on Russia. The White House said Pelosi and other congressional leaders will receive a briefing on Thursday.
U.S. and European investigators strongly suspect that the unit of the GRU Russian military intelligence agency accused of targeting U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan using Taliban-linked militants is the same unit that was implicated in the poisoning of Russian intelligence defector Sergei Skripal in Britain, according to four sources familiar with intelligence reporting.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Mark Hosenball, Steve Holland, Arshad Mohammed, Humeyra Pamuk, Phil Stewart, Mohammad Zargham, Lisa Lambert and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Arshad Mohammed, Andy Sullivan and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Andrea Ricci and Dan Grebler