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The Russian Bounties Story Turns Out to Be Trash Journalism

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President Trump with better half Melania wait to welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White Home in Washington, D.C., September 15,2020
( Al Drago/Reuters)

The number of times will people have to fall for this before they learn?




NRPLUS MEMBER SHORT ARTICLE

H
Somehow, Democrats and the media keep on betting heavily on stories that turn out, on closer assessment, to range from unverified to grossly overstated to straight-out fabrications. And now, we see the collapse of the “Russian bounties paid to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan” story.

New York City Times press reporters Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt, Michael Schwirtz, and Mujib Mashal broke the greatly hyped story in late June: “Russia Privately Provided Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Soldiers, Intelligence States”:

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit covertly used bounties to Taliban-linked militants for eliminating union forces in Afghanistan– consisting of targeting American soldiers– amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to authorities briefed on the matter. The United States concluded months ago that the Russian system, which has been connected to assassination attempts and other concealed operations in Europe intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had actually covertly provided benefits for effective attacks last year.[Emphasis added]

The story was based entirely on unknown sources– “authorities spoke on the condition of privacy”– but saying that this was something “the United States concluded months earlier” would lead many readers to think that this was a strongly supported consensus finding of the intelligence neighborhood. Two days later on, a Times report by Savage, Mashal, Schmitt, Rukmini Callimachi, Adam Goldman, Fahim Abed, Najim Rahim, Helene Cooper and Nicholas Fandos– we’re now approximately 10 press reporters from the Times, if you’re keeping score– not only assured us that the claim was supported by difficult proof, but likewise strongly suggested that the bounties had actually been paid:

American authorities obstructed electronic data revealing big monetary transfers from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account, evidence that supported their conclusion that Russia discreetly used bounties for eliminating U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, according to three officials familiar with the intelligence The United States has accused Russia of supplying basic support to the Taliban before, experts concluded from other intelligence that the transfers were most likely part of a bounty program that detainees explained throughout interrogations … The intercepts reinforced the findings obtained from the interrogations, assisting lower an earlier argument among intelligence analysts and companies over the reliability of the detainees.

James Gordon Meek, Elizabeth Thomas, and Luis Martinez of ABC News reported, “Russian intelligence officers provided to pay Taliban militants to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan over the past year, amidst peace talks to end the 18- year war there, a military official validated to ABC News,” however included the caveat that “‘ there is no chance to truly confirm if it actually worked,’ the military official, who’s not authorized to speak on the record about such matters, told ABC News.”

Democrats and their pundit class got on the story as truth, and tended to gloss over the space between reports that bounties were provided which they were in fact paid as an ongoing program. Joe Biden quickly tore into Trump:

His whole presidency has been a present to Putin, but this is beyond the pale.

Nancy Pelosi informed ABC’s Today, “This is as bad as it gets. And yet the president will not challenge the Russians on this rating, rejects being briefed. Whether he is or not, his administration knows, and our allies– some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan– had been briefed and accept this report.”

In his convention speech, Biden leaned on the story to draw a contrast: “Under President Biden, America will not turn a blind eye to Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers.” He was not the only speaker at the convention to depend on the Russian-bounties story. John Kerry thundered, “Donald Trump pretends Russia didn’t attack our elections and now he not does anything about Russia putting a bounty on our soldiers.” Air Force veteran Jack Weinstein asserted, “The Russians offered bounties on U.S. soldiers. I was shocked when I read that. However the president didn’t even asked Vladimir Putin about it. That’s un-American,” to which previous Obama defense secretary Chuck Hagel responded, “There’s something incorrect with that. I imply, that’s a dereliction of task. You’re failing the troops. You’re failing this country.”

Ben Rhodes was still touting the story yesterday early morning:

This might seem more trustworthy if Trump did a single aspect of United States intelligence reports about Russian bounties to kill US troops that were acted upon. What about those? https://t.co/qE8EvDQ5U2

— Ben Rhodes (@brhodes) September 15, 2020

Of course, U.S. intelligence hears things all the time that might or may not be real. It is all however difficult for even the most informed news consumer to assess anonymously reported accusations drawn from raw intelligence, especially in a place such as Afghanistan.

NBC News’ Courtney Kube and Ken Dilanian have now reported that no such consensus intelligence finding ever existed. The NBC report is based on military sources, consisting of comments on the record from General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for the whole area:

McKenzie’s remarks, showing an agreement view among military leaders, highlights the lack of certainty around a narrative that has been accepted as truth by Democrats and other Trump critics, consisting of presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has pointed out Russian bounties in attacks on President Donald Trump … Senior military officials state they do not believe the intelligence is strong enough to act on. The intelligence is far from conclusive, he said. [Emphasis added]

Simply put, not only exists not an agreement intelligence finding, there is an agreement view among the military brass that the story hasn’t been shown. That does not imply it is difficult; lots of things are possible. Russian support for the Taliban while the Taliban have been at war with us for 19 years is already popular, and it is certainly plausible that Russian intelligence may go even more than that. But every report on this story has, properly, dealt with the possible offer or payment of bounties as a significant and newsworthy escalation. The bounties angle has been central to the Biden project’s argument. It would, by any traditional definition, be casus belli justifying war between the United States and Russia– indeed, it would be evidence that Russia is already officially at war with the United States. And it ends up being unsubstantiated.

It is deeply, exceptionally irresponsible to publish this sort of thing. The Times threw 10 reporters at this story and could not inform it honestly, because it fit too neatly with the story the paper and its readers wanted to find out about Donald Trump. The number of times will people need to succumb to this before they learn?

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