President Trump was briefed on Russian bounties back in March 2019, the Associated Press reports today. That would mean, at a minimum, White House officials knew about the alleged secret efforts by Russian officials to pay Taliban fighters for killing American troops in Afghanistan “a full year earlier than has been previously reported,” AP writes today. The story was first reported by the New York Times this weekend, then followed up by the Washington Post and AP.
What’s new: “The intelligence in 2019 and 2020 surrounding Russian bounties was derived in part from debriefings of captured Taliban militants,” AP reports today. “Officials with knowledge of the matter told the AP that Taliban operatives from opposite ends of the country and from separate tribes offered similar accounts.”
What’s more, “Then-national security adviser John Bolton also told colleagues at the time that he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019,” AP reports. For the record, though, “Bolton declined to comment Monday when asked by the AP if he’d briefed Trump about the matter in 2019.”
Caveat: “Officials said they didn’t consider the intelligence assessments in 2019 to be particularly urgent, given Russian meddling in Afghanistan isn’t a new occurrence.”
Some current and former intelligence officials say the alleged program is properly seen as a moderate deepening of a long-suspected, hard-to-prove pattern of clandestine Russian aid to the militant group, Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reported Monday. “I would hardly call it a huge escalation,” said one former senior intelligence official who recently served in the region. “I would call it confirmation of something we’d long suspected.” Read on, here.
To that end, the CIA said this Monday: “Hostile states’ use of proxies in war zones to inflict damage on U.S. interests and troops is a constant, longstanding concern,” the agency said in a Monday statement attributed to Director Gina Haspel.
Also in that statement, “Leaks compromise and disrupt the critical interagency work to collect, assess, and ascribe culpability.”
According to Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman (emphasis added): “The Department of Defense continues to evaluate intelligence that Russian GRU operatives were engaged in malign activity against United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan. To date, DOD has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports. Regardless, we always take the safety and security of our forces in Afghanistan — and around the world — most seriously and therefore continuously adopt measures to prevent harm from potential threats.”
Today: Congress wants answers, and may get them...in sequence. House and Senate members of both parties have demanded to know more about the intelligence about the bounties, who in the White House knew about it, and why Congressional leaders hadn’t been briefed.
On Monday, the White House invited eight House Republicans for a briefing; one emerged to lampoon the media for making it “impossible to finish” a U.S. investigation into the reports.
But Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement, “After today’s briefing with senior White House officials, we remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted U.S. forces.”
Democrats were briefed by administration officials just this morning. And Rep. Adam Smith of Washington had this to say afterward, according to Katie Bo Williams: “There is conflicting intelligence in terms of exactly what happened here. There's certainly evidence of Russian involvement and I think we should do more to pursue that and hold the Russians accountable for their activity in Afghanistan...I have not yet seen enough to tell me if [the] Trump administration responded in an appropriate way to this initial intelligence. I am concerned they didn't pursue it as aggressively or as comprehensively as they should have.”
New this morning: Senate Democrats have four questions each for State Secretary Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper about all this, according to Politico’s Natasha Bertrand. Furthermore, the senators wants Esper and Pompeo to answer those questions before the Senate this week. Find the letter and the eight questions, here.
From Defense One
Russian Bounties Are Part of Moscow’s Aid to the Taliban, Current and Former Intel Officials Say // Katie Bo Williams: It's not yet a foregone conclusion, but Russia has long been suspected of helping the militant group.
GM Believes Army Troop Transport Deal Is Jumpstart to More Military Work // Marcus Weisgerber: Now the company has its sights on Marine Corps, international, and more Army contracts.
The ‘Domestic Terrorist’ Designation Won’t Stop Extremism // Arie Perliger, The Conversation: Neither the historical record nor today's decentralization suggest that a government designation will have much effect.
Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1994, the UK transferred sovereignty of Hong Kong to China, ending 156 years of colonial rule.
China’s parliament voted to impose national-security legislation on Hong Kong today, and it goes into effect later today, Reuters reports from the city of 7.5 million. Threat of the law’s passage already prompted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to warn on Twitter Monday, “If Beijing now treats Hong Kong as ‘One Country, One System,’ so must we.”
On the surface, Reuters reports, the law “comes in response to last year’s often-violent pro-democracy protests in the city and aims to tackle subversion, terrorism, separatism and collusion with foreign forces.” But at least some messaging was hard to miss, including checkpoint and fugitive search drills by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong as the law was being passed.
What’s next? “Beijing is expected to set up a national security office in Hong Kong for the first time and could also exercise jurisdiction on certain cases,” according to Reuters. However lots is still shrouded in secrecy; and Reuters notes, “It is not known which specific activities are to be made illegal, how precisely they are defined or what punishment they carry.” A bit more, here.
Happening today: The Defense Department's Mark Lewis, director of defense research and engineering for modernization, talks about modernization in a virtual event with the Hudson Institute. That starts at 12 p.m. ET. More here.
At the same time, Gen. Paul Funk of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, speaks at a 12 p.m. ET webinar with the Association of the U.S. Army. Details here.
There’s also a virtual event Thursday that sounds pretty interesting to us: National Guard Chief Gen. Joseph Lengyel talks about “The force America needs: Lessons of 2020 and the future of the National Guard” with Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon at 2 p.m. ET. Register for the webcast here.
U.S. defense “industry giants” can pay so well they’re making “it more difficult for other sectors of the economy, or the military itself, to compete,” according to a new report (PDF) from The Costs of War Project at Brown University. Brown’s Heidi Peltier found that “Firms such as Lockheed Martin, which earned over $8 billion in profits in 2019, or Kellogg, Brown & Root, which earned $653 million, are able to pay wages that range from 20 to 166 percent above the national average for such occupations.”
Why this matters: The “commercial monopoly of military contracting ultimately transfers funds from U.S. taxpayers to private pockets.” And a lot of it. Peltier takes a look at “cost-type” and “fixed-price” contracts and finds “DOD uses cost-type contracts four times as much as the Department of Energy, and over ten times more than Health and Human Services or the Department of Transportation.” Given the comparative budget sizes, that may seem to be no big deal. But to put a number on it, Peltier discovered that “Between 2008 and 2019, the Department of Defense spent over $1.2 trillion on such cost-type contracts, none of which were subject to the cost-reducing pressures of private markets.”
One way this could complicate dynamics for future generations: “A talented engineer, for example, might choose to work for Lockheed Martin rather than a renewable energy company because of the higher salary.”
Solutions? Peltier suggests:
- “decreasing contracting as a percentage of military spending”;
- “refashioning the contracting process to reduce waste, excessive profits and labor demand by contractors”;
- and “increasing labor demand from other sectors important to the American public that have occupational crossover with military and contractor labor, such as construction of infrastructure and clean energy production.”
A few other findings from the report:
- In 2019, “there were 53,000 U.S. contractors compared to 35,000 U.S. troops in the Middle East.”
- “Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, an estimated 8,000 U.S. contractors have died, in addition to around 7,000 U.S. troops.”
- “Contractor deaths are less visible to the American public, which is part of the political usefulness of military contracting.” Find the full report, here.
ICYMI: Defense giants are among the few firms hiring briskly amid the pandemic’s once-in-a-century unemployment, Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber has reported. Lockheed Martin alone says it’s hired some 8,300 workers since the coronavirus hit.
From telephone diplomacy to a national security threat. President Trump was often "consistently unprepared" and frankly "abusive" in phone calls with world leaders; so much so, in fact, "that the calls helped convince some senior U.S. officials — including his former secretaries of state and defense, two national security advisers and his longest-serving chief of staff — that the President himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States," CNN's Carl Bernstein reported Monday.
And finally, for something completely different: Apparently it’s Asteroid Day. And so Reuters reports that “Asteroid mining is forecasted to be a $3.87 billion industry by 2025.” For more on that, watch this nearly two-minute explainer on the topic.