Jul 05, 2020

The real Russia hoax, CNN.com

The real Russia hoax Opinion by Peter Bergen Updated 8:56 PM ET, Thu July 2, 2020 "Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America, and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His new book is "Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN." (CNN)President Donald Trump has termed the richly reported stories that the Russians paid Afghan militants bounties to kill US soldiers based in Afghanistan a "hoax." But the real hoax is how White House officials are covering up for Trump's incompetence as commander in chief who is responsible for the welfare of the US military and who has consistently maintained a bizarre bromance with a former KGB officer, Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Monday White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said of the intelligence surrounding the Russian bounties, "there were dissenting opinions within the intelligence community, and it would not be elevated to the president until it was verified." Robert O' Brien, Trump's national security adviser, similarly tweeted that because the intelligence hadn't been "verified" the president wasn't briefed. But this explanation makes no sense at all. Presidents get plenty of unverified information. Intelligence is not like mathematics where 2+2 can always be "verified" to make 4. Think of the operation during which Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011. There was no "verified" intelligence that bin Laden was in Abbottabad. It was an entirely circumstantial case that he might be there, and former President Barack Obama had to make the call to dispatch the SEALs on a potentially quite dangerous mission despite the fact there was significant dissent within the intelligence community about the likelihood that bin Laden was there. As I found when I was reporting my book "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad," in the weeks before Obama ordered the bin Laden raid, a small intelligence "Red Team" was tasked to examine the intelligence that bin Laden might be in Abbottabad. The team came back with a range of estimates that al Qaeda's leader was in Abbottabad varying from 40% to 60% confidence. When Obama ordered the risky bin Laden operation he did so knowing that there was likely only a 50/50 chance that he was in Abbottabad. And that gets to the nature of intelligence. When the US intelligence agencies examine an issue of particular importance to US policymakers they often will issue a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). The word "estimate" is telling. US opponents cloak their actions in secrecy and so the American intelligence community tries to break through this veil of secrecy typically with some combination of human sources, signals intelligence and satellite imagery. This doesn't typically produce a "verified" truth but rather an estimate that often comes with varying levels of "confidence" from "high" to "low." Here, for instance, is a declassified NIE from 2007 about the history of the Iranian nuclear program According to his national security adviser, O'Brien, Trump wasn't personally briefed about the Russian bounties. If this is true, the real reason for this seems likely not because that intelligence wasn't important, but that Trump simply doesn't want to hear anything bad about his buddy Putin and so US intelligence officials have consistently downplayed to Trump anything that might make Putin look bad, according to The Madman Theory, a forthcoming book by CNN's Jim Sciutto. And the fact that the Russian bounty intelligence was put in the Presidential Daily Brief earlier this year means little since Trump hardly ever reads these briefings, according to the Washington Post and the New York Times, shirking his responsibilities as commander in chief to spend untold hours hate-watching cable news and tweeting about all sort of trivia and grudges instead of doing the hard work of getting informed to protect the American people and its military. It's not a secret, or even news that Russia has been supporting the Taliban. In March 2018, the top US commander in Afghanistan, General John "Mick" Nicholson, told the BBC that Russian weapons were smuggled to the Taliban and that they "provide some degree of support to the Taliban." So, some version of the facts of Russian support to the Taliban has been public for more than two years. The real question White House officials haven't begun to address -- so eager are they to say that the President wasn't informed about plots to kill US troops in Afghanistan -- is: What will the Trump administration do about this? After all, Trump personally ordered the killing in January of General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iranian military operations in the Middle East, for supposedly planning attacks on US targets in the region. Would Trump order some kind of retaliatory action against the Russians based on the intelligence about their bounties for the lives of US soldiers? The question answers itself.