WASHINGTON — The U.S. has gathered intelligence that Russian intelligence officers have offered to pay bounties to Taliban fighters who kill Americans, three people briefed on the matter told NBC News.
The intelligence has been shared with congressional leaders and with the British government, the sources said. However, a senior defense official downplayed the intelligence reporting, saying there was no evidence that any bounty was actually paid.
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The news was first reported by The New York Times, which said "the intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump," who denied having received the briefing Sunday. National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe also denied late Saturday that Trump had been briefed.
According to The Times, the reporting was described in the President's Daily Brief, a written summary of high-level national security matters. NBC News has not confirmed whether Trump was given a briefing on the matter, but it would be unusual if top officials did not verbally brief the president on something so explosive.
Former national security adviser John Bolton said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that it would be "disturbing" if officials had not briefed the president about the matter.
NBC News' sources were not able to make it clear how persuasive the intelligence is. A source told The Times that the assessment was based in part on interviews with Afghan detainees. That alone would not prove the case, but the U.S. would almost certainly have tried to get communications intercepts from the Russians that shed light. In the past, the National Security Agency has had success penetrating Russia's military intelligence unit, the GRU.
An intelligence official said the report is not particularly surprising given the fraught history between the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. armed Afghan fighters with missiles to shoot down Soviet helicopters in the 1980s when the Soviet Union was fighting in Afghanistan, part of a CIA covert action that killed many Russians. In 2018, U.S. forces killed a number of Russian mercenaries who were operating with pro-regime forces in Syria.
But other experts have said that if the report is true, it is a serious escalation in Russia's post-Cold War actions against the U.S.