- The New York Times reported Friday that U.S. intelligence officials concluded a Russian intelligence unit had offered Taliban-linked militants money to kill coalition forces in Afghanistan— including U.S. troops.
- Numerous outlets confirmed the report, and on Sunday, the Washington Post reported that officials said the bounties had resulted in the deaths of American troops.
- Despite officials claiming Trump was briefed on the matter in March, the Trump administration has denied that the president knew of the report, though they have not disputed its validity.
- Trump himself denied being briefed on Sunday, and later tweeted, “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me.” He also claimed it was “possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax.”
Russia Bounties on U.S. Troops
U.S. intelligence officials believe that Russian bounties offered to Taliban-linked groups to kill Western forces in Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of U.S. troops, the Washington Post reported Sunday. The information adds to the alarming allegations first published by the New York Times on Friday.
According to the Times report, which has now been confirmed by multiple outlets, U.S. intelligence officials concluded a Russian military intelligence unit had secretly offered Taliban-linked groups money to kill Western forces in Afghanistan, including U.S. troops.
Officials also told the Times that President Donald Trump had been briefed on the intelligence finding and that the White House’s National Security Council had discussed it at an interagency meeting in late March.
In response, U.S. officials came up with a number of potential options, including making a diplomatic complaint to Russia demanding that it stop as well as “an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses.”
Officials who spoke to the Times said that the White House has yet to authorize any step. They also said that the intelligence “had been treated as a closely held secret” but that the Trump administration expanded the briefings about it this week and had shared the information with the British government, whose forces they said had also been targeted.
British security officials who spoke to Sky News and a European intelligence official that spoke to CNN also confirmed that the plot outlined in the reports was true.
It is unclear how many American service members were killed by militants being paid bounties by Russians, officials told the Post Sunday, noting that the information had been passed up from the U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan.
Later on Sunday, the Times reported that those forces, along with U.S. intelligence officers, had told their superiors about the Russian bounties as early as January. Two officials also confirmed that they believed at least one U.S. troop had been killed as a result of the bounties.
The Times also reported that the information that led military and intelligence officials to focus on the bounties included a raid on a Taliban outpost that found a large amount of American cash.
Officials told both the Times and the Post interrogations of captured militants played an important role in giving the intelligence community confidence in its assessment. Officials, however, are still uncertain as to why Russia would act in such a way.
According to the Times, some officials have said that the Russians might be trying to get revenge for a battle in Syria in 2018, where U.S. military forces killed several hundred pro-Syrian forces— including Russian mercenaries— after they began advancing on an American outpost.
Others have said that the Russians might be trying to derail the peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban to keep the U.S. weighed down in Afghanistan. But at the same time, many officials have speculated how far up in the Russian government this alleged operation goes.
Those briefed on the matter have said that the U.S. government had pinned the operation to a specific unit of Russia’s military intelligence agency, commonly known as the G.R.U.
Per the Times, Western intelligence officials have said the unit “has been charged by the Kremlin with carrying out a campaign to destabilize the West through subversion, sabotage and assassination.”
More specifically, that unit was also linked to a very high-profile international incident in England in 2018, where a former G.R.U officer who had worked with British intelligence and his daughter were poisoned by a nerve agent.
The G.R.U itself as an organization also has a more recent history of trouble with the U.S. American intelligence officials have said that the G.R.U. was at the heart of Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that two G.R.U. cyberunits were behind the Democratic Party hacks which lead to the 2016 DNC email leaks by WikiLeaks.
Regardless of why the G.R.U. would put bounties on American troops, if this intelligence is true, it would be incredibly significant for a number of reasons.
First of all, according to the Times, it would mark the first time G.R.U is known to have led attacks on Western troops, but it would also represent a serious escalation between the U.S. and both the Taliban and Russia.
In February, the U.S. struck a peace agreement with the Taliban, and since then, they have not attacked U.S. positions. While both U.S. and Afghan officials have accused Russia of supplying small arms to the Taliban, recently, U.S. officials have said that Russia has been cooperative and helpful since that deal was signed.
Responses from Trump Administration
Russia and the Taliban have both denied the existence of the bounties program, and the Russian Embassy in Washington called the Times report “fake news” in a tweet on Saturday.
The U.S. response thus far has been a mix of refutations and refusals to respond.
The CIA and both the Defense and State departments have declined to give comments to the media, and when asked to give a comment, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said that “the veracity of the underlying allegations continue to be evaluated.”
On Saturday, both Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe denied that Trump had ever been briefed on the matter, though neither disputed the substance of the intelligence assessment itself.
President Trump himself echoed those remarks in a tweet on Sunday.
“Nobody briefed or told me, @VP Pence, or Chief of Staff @MarkMeadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an ‘anonymous source’ by the Fake News @nytimes. Everybody is denying it & there have not been many attacks on us,” he wrote.
Like the other members of his administration, Trump also did not say anything about whether or not the report was true.
Additionally, multiple current and formal intelligence officials have said that it is unlikely Trump would not be informed of such a significant accusation. As a result, there has been a lot of speculation over the argument that Trump was not briefed, and whether or not the White House is basing that claim on a technicality.
“Intelligence experts suggested that the White House defense appeared to be largely a semantic one, perhaps resting on the material being included in the written daily intelligence brief that the president is known to avoid reading, rather than presented to him orally,” the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.
There is some evidence to support this. For example, at least one official told the New York Times that the report was included in that daily intelligence brief, called the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB).
When pressed by reporters on Monday as to whether the information was included in the PDB, McEnany only said Trump “was not personally briefed,”— a response that some have said seems to back up the idea that nobody told Trump about it orally, but does not rule out the fact that it could have been given to him in the form of a report he did not read.
Pressure from Congress
Over the weekend and into Monday, both Democrats and Republicans called on Trump to address the situation.
Many Democrats condemned the president for not doing anything and being indifferent, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who said in a tweet that Trump was “doing absolutely nothing while a Russian spy unit pays the Taliban to kill US soldiers is a profound betrayal of our troops.”
Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden took their accusations a step further.
“Not only has he failed to sanction or impose any kind of consequences on Russia for this egregious violation of international law, Donald Trump has continued his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself before Vladimir Putin,” Biden said during a virtual town hall event Saturday.
“His entire presidency has been a gift to Putin, but this is beyond the pale,” he continued. “It’s a betrayal of the most sacred duty we bear as a nation, to protect and equip our troops when we send them into harm’s way.”
Pelosi, for her part, made similar remarks in an interview on “This Week” Sunday, where she accused Trump of wanting “to ignore” any charges against Russia.
“This is totally outrageous,” she said. “You would think that the minute the president heard of it, he would want to know more instead of denying that he knew anything.”
“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score, denies being briefed,” she added. “Whether he is or not, his administration knows, and some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan have been briefed and accept this report.”
Pelosi also argued that if Trump had not been briefed, the country should be concerned that his administration was scared to share information regarding Russia with him.
A number of Republicans also pressured Trump to give a better explanation.
“If reporting about Russian bounties on US forces is true, the White House must explain: 1. Why weren’t the president or vice president briefed? Was the info in the [Presidential Daily Briefing]? 2. Who did know and when? 3. What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) tweeted Sunday .
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-KY), a close ally of President Trump, also pressed the question in a series of tweets.
Trump, for his part, responded to Graham’s tweet late Sunday night.
“Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP,” he wrote. “Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks, wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!”
On Monday morning, Press Secretary McEnany also seemed to echo that while speaking to Fox News, and claiming that the media reports have been based on “alleged intelligence that was never briefed to the president of the United States,”
She said that as a matter of practice, Trump is only briefed on intelligence that’s found to be “verifiable and credible,” though she also said that there was “no consensus” about the validity of the report within the intelligence community, which includes “dissenting opinions.”
Protests Continue in Belarus Following Contested Election
- Nationwide protests have been raging throughout Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko, who has served for 26 years and is widely considered Europes “last dictator,” won an election many believed was rigged.
- In addition to controlling the vote count, media, and security forces, Lukashenko also arrested many of his political opponents in the race leading up to the election, forcing the rest to flee.
- He was challenged by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of one of the men he arrested, and despite overwhelming popular support for her, she only won 10% of the vote.
- When she went to contest the results, she was held in a room for several hours an then disappeared, reappearing on video the next day to announce that she had fled the country.
- Since Sunday, protests have continued all over the country. Security forces have responded violently and arrested over 6,000 people.
Protests continued in cities and towns across Belarus on Wednesday for the fourth consecutive day following the re-election of the country’s long-term leader, Alexander Lukashenko.
On Sunday, following the news that Lukashenko had won another term, demonstrations broke out nationwide in what has been described as the biggest anti-government protests the country has seen in decades.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Minsk and other cities on Sunday. According to reports and footage, security forces responded by trying to break up protests by force, beating the demonstrators and using tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, water cannons, and other projectiles.
Also on Sunday, the country was hit with massive internet and cellular blackouts, and many social media sites were blocked. While Lukashenko denied that the government had shut down the internet and blamed the outage on a large cyberattack from abroad, experts have said there is no evidence of that.
Intermittent outages resumed throughout the week, though on Wednesday it was reported that the internet had largely been restored. The protests, however, still continued, and security forces have kept clashing violently with protesters, using force at demonstrations in multiple cities.
In one city, officials said police used live ammunition after protesters tried to attack them with steel bars. Government authorities said Wednesday that they have arrested more than 6,000 nationwide in the last three days alone.
Anti-Lukashenko Movement Grows
The unrest follows months of smaller protests leading up to the election, where Lukashenko, who has served as the president of Belarus for more than 26 years, was running for his sixth term.
He was first elected when the office was established in 1994, which, not by coincidence, was also the last election in the country that outside observers have said was free and fair.
Since taking office, Lukashenko, who has been described as Europe’s “last dictator,” has kept tight control over the elections. In addition to controlling vote counting, he also controls Belarus’ huge security system as well the state media, which always publishes news favoring him and criticizing his opponents.
Throughout his authoritarian rule, the government has continually and frequently suppressed opposition, but heading into last Sunday’s election, Lukashenko was experiencing the largest and most significant opposition to his rule since he assumed power.
Over time, his policies have become more and more unpopular as they have failed to modernize and grow Belarus’ economy. Lukashenko was also facing a lot of anger over his handling of the pandemic, which he had repeatedly downplayed, even suggesting at one point that drinking vodka could cure the coronavirus.
In the months leading up to the election, protesters took to the street to demonstrate against Lukashenko, who responded by cracking down. He claimed that the protests were part of a foreign plot and began mass arrests.
According to Viasna, a Belarussian human-rights group, there were more than 1,500 arbitrary detentions throughout the whole election campaign, which started in early May.
In addition to protesters and journalists, Lukashenko also began arresting several of his major political opponents in the upcoming election on charges widely believed to be false.
Then in July, with all his opponents either in jail or forced to flee the country to avoid being in jail, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a popular YouTuber who was one of Lukashenko’s jailed opponents, registered to run. She became the united opposition candidate and received backing from the others who were unable to run.
For weeks, she went around the country campaigning, sometimes drawing crowds estimated at over 60,000, making them some of the largest political rallies in Belarus since the fall of the Soviet Union.
But even before Election Day, the opposition expected the results would be illegitimate. On Sunday, the state-run election authority declared that Lukashenko had won with 80% of the vote and that Tikhanovskaya had only won just under 10%.
Immediately, the opposition and many other international governments dismissed the outcome as clearly rigged. Tikhanovskaya’s campaign and independent observers reportedly claimed that there was widespread ballot stuffing and falsifications.
As she had indicated before, Tikhanovskaya said she would refuse to accept the results. On Monday, she went to the Central Election Commission headquarters to formally contest the vote count.
According to a supporter who said she went with her, Tikhanovskaya was in a room for three hours with two senior security service officials. About an hour into the meeting, the supporter said she saw several people enter the room with black bags that contained what looked like video equipment.
After another two hours, she was told that Tikhanovskaya had left through another entrance. She did not see her after that.
On Tuesday, Tikhanovskaya posted a video on YouTube saying she had fled the country, and that she did so for the sake of her two children.
“I made a very hard decision, I’ve made this decision on my own,” she said. “I know that many people will understand me, many will judge me and many will hate me but god forbid you will ever have to face the choice that I had to face.”
However, the same day, another video of Tikhanovskaya was released that many speculate was clearly taken under duress, likely while at the commission headquarters.
In the video, reading from a prepared notecard, she called on the people to Belarus to stop protesting and insisted “the nation has made its choice” and Lukashenko had won.
While Tikhanovskaya did not say where she had fled to, her campaign said she was in Lithuania, a fact that was later confirmed by the country’s Foreign Minister.
See what others are saying: (The Associated Press) (BBC) (The Guardian)
Skepticism Emerges After Russia Approves First Covid-19 Vaccine
- Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia has developed a coronavirus vaccine, and officials in the country anticipate that tens of thousands of people will receive it in the next few months.
- Russia is planning a mass rollout of the vaccine in October, with teachers and healthcare workers having the ability to volunteer to get it even sooner.
- However, health officials are concerned that Russia rushed through the vaccine process, as the vaccine has not been through Phase 3 trials. That months-long process involves testing thousands of individuals and is considered essential in developing a vaccine.
- Others have also expressed skepticism over the vaccine as Russia has yet to release data from its initial clinical trials.
Russia Announces Vaccine
President Vladimir Putin announced Tuesday that Russia has developed a coronavirus vaccine, prompting concerns from health officials who believe the country’s process in doing so was rushed and lacked crucial tests.
“A vaccine against coronavirus has been registered for the first time in the world this morning,” Putin said while delivering the Tuesday announcement. “I know that it works quite effectively, it forms a stable immunity.”
The vaccine, which has been dubbed “Sputnik V,” was developed by The Gamaleya Institute and was funded by the Russian Direct Investment Fund. Officials say there could be a mass rollout for it in October, but prioritized individuals like teachers and healthcare workers could volunteer to get it sooner. Tens of thousands are expected to receive the vaccine in the next few months. One of his daughters has already received it.
“Of course, what counts most is for us to be able to ensure the unconditional safety of the use of this vaccine and its efficiency in the future. I hope that this will be accomplished,” Putin added in his address.
As the Associated Press explained, this vaccine uses a different virus, the common cold-causing adenovirus, and modifies it to carry genes for the “spike” protein that coats the coronavirus. Scientists in China and the U.K. are working on a similar vaccine.
However, Russia approved the vaccine before it ever went through Phase 3 trials, which is a crucial step that involves administering the vaccine to thousands of people. Phase 3 trials could last for months, and while Russia said they will be conducting them and doing trials in countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and maybe Brazil, the vaccine will still be offered to volunteers who want it in the meantime.
Health Officials Express Concern
Health experts fear that distributing the vaccine before Phase 3 results are in could be dangerous. They fear Russia was racing to be the first country to offer up a vaccine, as Putin has previously said he wanted one by September.
According to the AP, human trials started back in June with 76 volunteers, half of which were injected with a liquid vaccine and the other half given on in the form as a soluble powder. Some of those volunteers were recruited from the military, prompting concerns that they may not have been volunteers at all, and were actually pressured into participating.
“Normally you need a large number of people to be tested before you approve a vaccine. I think it’s reckless to do that if lots of people haven’t already been tested,” Peter Kremsner, an expert at Germany’s University Hospital in Tuebingen told Reuters.
Kremsner was not alone, other health officials told Reuters that releasing a vaccine at this stage is “unethical” and could lead to the pandemic only being worsened. On top of this lack of testing, Russia has also not released any data from its initial clinical trials.
“It is not possible to know if the Russian vaccine has been shown to be effective without submission of scientific papers for analysis,” Keith Neal, a specialist in the epidemiology of infectious diseases at Britain’s Nottingham University said in a statement.
Vaccine Response from U.S. Leaders
Even before Russia touted its new vaccine, there were concerns about how the country was developing it. While testifying to Congress in July, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was worried about a lack of testing.
“I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing the vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone,” he said. “Because claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing is, I think, problematic at best.”
Since Russia’s announcement, other U.S. officials have also expressed their fears. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar criticized the pace at which it was produced while speaking with Good Morning America on Tuesday.
“The point is not to be first with a vaccine, the point is to have a vaccine that is safe and effective for the American people and the people of the world,” he said. “We need transparent data, and it’s gotta be Phase 3 data.”
Azar’s remarks line up with statements recently made by Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn.
“Let me assure you that we will not cut corners,” Hahn said while speaking to the American Medical Association on Monday. “All of our decisions will continue to be based on good science and the same careful deliberative processes we have always used when reviewing medical products.”
Vaccine Hesitancy in the United States
Releasing a vaccine too early could lead to a number of consequences. Say the process was rushed and the vaccine is ineffective or dangerous, it could lead to people being too nervous to get one when it is actually safe to do so. Reservations about a coronavirus vaccine are widespread, and go further than just the usual anti-vaxx crowd.
Polling on the subject shows scattered numbers, but most indicate that many are uninterested or paranoid when it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine. An August Gallup poll found that if a free FDA approved vaccine were ready today, one in three Americans would still refuse it. Polling from Yahoo and YouGov shows that back in May, 55% of U.S. adults planned on getting vaccinated, but by the end of July, that fell to 42%.
See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (Wall Street Journal) (Business Insider)
Lebanon’s Government Resigns Following Beirut Explosion Protests
- On Monday, the Prime Minister of Lebanon announced that he and his cabinet were resigning following a weekend of huge protests in Beirut.
- Thousands of people took to the streets, calling for the government to resign after an explosion last week killed 200 and injured over 6,000 others. The explosion was believed to have been caused by a chemical stockpile that the government knew existed.
- Protesters threw rocks and other projectiles, clashing violently with police who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
- The protesters view the explosion as symbolic of years of government corruption, but many experts say the resignations will do little to change the country’s political system without widespread reforms.
Lebanese Government Steps Down
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced Monday that his government was resigning following the massive explosion that shook the capital city of Beirut last week.
Speaking in a televised statement, Diab said that the explosion was the result of “endemic corruption” and that he was “heeding people’s demand for real change. Today we will take a step back in order to stand with the people.”
The explosion, which killed 200 people and injured 6,000 others, is believed to have been caused by a fire that set off 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at the port. It has since been confirmed that many government officials knew about the dangerous stockpile for years and did nothing to address it.
The move follows a weekend of protests, where thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to call for the government to resign.
For many, the explosion was seen as yet another result of years of government corruption and mismanagement by the country’s ruling elite, who have been lining their own pockets while other people suffer.
Even before the blast, Lebanon was experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades as well as surging coronavirus cases. Both factors contributed to an already heighten distrust in the government that has only been augmented by the explosion.
Protests Break Out
Those sentiments appeared to boil over as protests over the weekend rocked the capital.
Droves of protesters gathered in downtown Beirut on Saturday, where some set up mock gallows and they hung cardboard cutouts of top politicians. Others chanted “The people want the fall of the regime,” and “Revolution! Revolution!” as they marched in the streets.
Confrontations broke out between protesters and police after demonstrators threw rocks at security forces who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets. There were also some reports of security forces firing live rounds and protesters throwing fireworks, Molotov cocktails, and other projectiles at police.
Fires burned in the streets and protesters stormed three government ministries, even taking over the Foreign Ministry for a few hours before the army reclaimed the building.
The anti-government protests continued Sunday, and again police fired tear gas at rock-throwing demonstrators who were blocking a road near Parliament. Lebanese TV footage also showed a fire breaking out at an entrance to Parliament Square as protesters tried to break into a sectioned-off area.
Also on Sunday, international leaders met at a virtual summit where they pledged $298 million to help Lebanon in the aftermath of the blast. According to reports, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said that while the aid was unconditional and would be given out regardless of political or institutional reforms, other pledges for longer-term support would depend on government reforms.
Lebanese officials have said the explosion caused upwards of $15 billion in economic losses.
Despite the fact that the resignation of the cabinet appears to heed the protesters’ calls, experts have warned that the move will result in more short-term political instability, but it is unlikely to create any long-term change.
“Not only do we have an absence of government and a political vacuum, but we’re going to have a severe problem with the function of the state of Lebanon,” Imad Salamey, a political scientist at Lebanese American University in Beirut told the Wall Street Journal. “We are heading toward the unknown.”
While the ministers have resigned, they are not gone. Instead, they will create a caretaker government that will exist until a new one is established, allowing them to “form the backbone of a new administration,” as The Guardian explains.
According to reports, the protesters, who continued their demonstrations on Monday, did not widely cheer Diab’s announcement.
For them, this is more of the same. Diab and his cabinet had been the political figures ushered in after a similar wave of anti-government protests prompted the former prime minister to step down in October.
After months of haggling, Diab and his government assumed power in January. Eight months later, he now leaves his people even worse off than before.