The likely reason Trump wasn’t briefed on Russia’s Taliban plot
Tom Rogan/ Washington Examiner
The New York Times correctly reported on Friday that U.S. intelligence officials believe Russia’s GRU intelligence service paid the Taliban to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan. But even as he hasn’t refuted the reporting, the Director of National Intelligence has confirmed the White House’s statement that President Trump did not receive intelligence briefings on the matter.
A few things are going on here.
First, note that belief and some evidence do not alone make a presidential-level intelligence product.
That said, the Times reporting is broadly accurate. I have moderate-high confidence that illuminating the GRU operation has been best enabled by very closely guarded CIA reporting. However, the other keystone Russia-collection agency, the NSA, appears to have been unable to directly corroborate the CIA’s reporting with their own signal collection efforts. This means that the U.S. currently lacks a direct operational link from the plot to the Kremlin (which would figure because communicating with Moscow would trigger attention from various U.S. intelligence capabilities) been established. Whether the Taliban have actually carried out any attacks at the GRU’s specific behest is also unclear.
Why almost no conservative criticism can harm Trump:
This context would explain why the Office of the Director of National Intelligence didn’t add the GRU cash-for-killing plot into its briefings for President Trump. To make it into the presidential daily brief, the daily intelligence product produced by the DNI for the president and other top officials, intelligence reporting must address an imminent concern or be assessed as very reliable (“high confidence”). The DNI doesn’t want to report things to Trump that it’s not very confident about already.
Moreover, Trump’s presidential daily briefs will have previously included reporting on GRU operations targeting American interests in Afghanistan. This Russian effort, directed by Vladimir Putin, centers on GRU and the SVR efforts to see the Taliban and other groups escalate their hostile activities.
The Kremlin’s strategic objective is to bleed the U.S. of life, prestige, and treasure, and ultimately pressure us out of Afghanistan. Putin also wishes to detach the Afghan government from western interests. In turn, it’s important to note that the GRU cash-for-killings concern is just one slice of a big Russian intelligence cake in Afghanistan. Alongside its apparent engaging of the Taliban to kill American and coalition soldiers, the GRU has supported the group with arms, money, and intelligence material to enable its attacks and improve its operational security.
Then there’s the broader issue of presidential intelligence briefings. Like all presidents, Trump is busy. Unless a national security issue is urgent and requires specific attention, he doesn’t need to be told all the specifics, and often he won’t be.
That’s a matter of practicality as much as anything else. Yes, Trump prefers shorter and less extensive intelligence briefings than did his predecessors. Still, Trump, Pence, Pompeo, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows — the top figures on the daily brief distribution list — are only human. Were the daily briefing to include all the present and emerging threats each and every day, it would be hundreds of pages long.
Indeed, the GRU’s toxic penchant for murder, mayhem, and exceptionally aggressive and risky operations means that its section of the daily brief could alone be ten pages long! Thus, the daily brief contains only that which the president really needs to know or has asked to know more about. Trump takes a very keen interest in economic-related intelligence products, for example. This is especially so with regard to China and the intersection of economics and other priorities such as Trump’s negotiations with North Korea.
In short, while the Times is basically correct, it’s very hard to know whether the DNI was right to hold back the Times-related intelligence report from Trump. The answer to that question depends on what reliable evidence the intelligence community presently has in its possession.