WASHINGTON — While he was campaigning for president, Joe Biden treated as fact that U.S. intel agencies had determined Russia had paid the Taliban to kill Americans in Afghanistan.
"I don't understand why this president is unwilling to take on Putin when he's actually paying bounties to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan," Biden said of President Trump, speaking to Kristen Welker of NBC News during the Oct. 22 presidential debate.
Such a definitive statement was questionable even then. On Thursday, it became more clear that the truth of the matter is unresolved.
Last fall, while Biden was a candidate, Pentagon officials told NBC News they could not substantiate that such bounties were paid.
Biden responds to report of Russian bounties on U.S. troopsJune 27, 202002:36
They still have not found any evidence, a senior defense official said Thursday. And the Biden administration also made clear in a fact sheet released Thursday that the CIA's intelligence on the matter is far from conclusive, acknowledging that analysts labeled it "low to moderate confidence."
The White House fact sheet explaining new sanctions over Russian misbehavior made clear that Russia was not being sanctioned over the issue. It used careful language, referring to "reported Afghanistan bounties."
"The administration is responding to the reports that Russia encouraged Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan based on the best assessments from the Intelligence Community," the fact sheet says. "Given the sensitivity of this matter, which involves the safety and well-being of our forces, it is being handled through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels."
In intelligence parlance, moderate confidence means the information is plausible and credibly sourced, but not quite corroborated enough to merit a higher rating.
Low confidence means the analysis was based on questionable or implausible information — or information too fragmented or poorly corroborated to make solid inferences. It can also reflect problems with the credibility of the sources.
It's perhaps the latest example of how much uncertainty pervades the gray world of espionage, in which sources aren't always reliable and intercepted communications don't always mean what they seem to. As former CIA director Michael Hayden has said, "If it was a fact, it wouldn't be intelligence."
White House learned of Russian bounty intelligence in early 2019June 30, 202001:41
Asked at a press briefing Thursday whether the White House believed the CIA assessment, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki did not answer directly. She said the reason the confidence level was “low to moderate,” is because some of the information came from Afghan detainees, and also due to the challenging operating environment in Afghanistan.
“This information really puts the burden on Russia and the Russian government to explain their engagement here,” she added.
After Biden became president — and began receiving more detailed intelligence briefings — his comments about the alleged Russian incentive payments became more careful. On Jan. 25, for example, he referred to "reports of bounties."
The Russian government has denied paying bounties to the Taliban to kill Americans.
Financial records, comments by a detainee
Democrats pilloried the Trump administration because the president never raised the issue of alleged bounties with the Russians. Many foreign policy experts said they should have done so, even if the evidence didn't add up to proof.
But in making those criticisms, Democrats, including Biden, imbued the intelligence with a certainty that appears to have been unmerited.
U.S. intelligence agencies have for years documented Russian financial and military support to the Taliban, but the news that the CIA detected a Russian program to incentivize the killing of American service members — first reported last year by the New York Times — appeared to represent a significant escalation.
Officials familiar with the matter told NBC News that the CIA based its findings on two main avenues of intelligence: Financial records seized in a raid in Afghanistan and comments by a detainee.
Military officials say they have looked hard but found no other evidence to corroborate that such a program existed.
In September, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, whose remit includes Afghanistan, told NBC News, "It just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me."
"We continue to look for that evidence," the general added. "I just haven't seen it yet. But … it's not a closed issue."
McKenzie's comments reflected a consensus view in the military. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told the House Armed Services Committee in July that "All the defense intelligence agencies have been unable to corroborate that report. "That has not changed, a senior official with direct knowledge told NBC News Thursday.
McKenzie said in September that if he could establish that the Russians were offering payments to kill Americans, he would push to forcefully respond. But the intelligence is far from conclusive, he said.
"I found what they presented to me very concerning, very worrisome. I just couldn't see the final connection, so I sent my guys back and said, look, keep digging. So we have continued to dig and look because this involves potential threats to U.S. forces, it's open," he said, adding, "I just haven't seen anything that closes that gap yet."
A U.S. military official familiar with the intelligence added at the time that after a review of the intelligence around each attack against Americans going back several years, none has been tied to any Russian incentive payments.
McKenzie could not be reached for comment, but the official familiar with the intelligence told NBC News Thursday that no Taliban attack had been tied to Russia.