- 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.”
Largest Network in the Philippines Denied Licensing Renewal, Reigniting Concerns Over Press Freedoms
- The Philippine’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, has been officially taken off the air by the Filipino Congress.
- The outlet has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, which has seen thousands of Filipinos die in extra-judicial killings.
- This points to a growing trend of the president and his allies silencing outlets and individuals critical of him.
- The Philippines, once considered a stable and free democracy, currently ranks among the worst in the world when it comes to freedom of the press, according to the World Press Freedom Index.
Largest Broadcaster Pulled Off the Air
The Philippine’s largest broadcaster has been officially pulled off the air by the Filipino Congress after having its broadcast license renewal denied on Friday.
The outlet, called ABS-CBN, employs 11,000 people. It was available to an audience of 60 million and consistently was viewed by over 15 million. It was hoping to receive another 25-year broadcast license after its recent one expired in May.
However, that request was denied by a committee of the House of Representatives after 13 hearings. Most of the committee members are long-time allies of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been extremely critical of the outlet since taking office.
Unlike other outlets petitioning for a license renewal, ABS-CBN weren’t allowed to continue using the free public airwaves while its application was pending, meaning it could only be a paid-subscription service.
Following the decision, ABS-CBN’s president and CEO, Carlo Katigbak, said in a statement on Friday, “We remain committed to public service, and we hope to find other ways to achieve our mission.” He went on to add the network was “deeply hurt” by the committee’s ruling.
The outlet can appeal, although there isn’t much hope that it’ll be successful.
Covering the War on Drugs
Duterte and his allies have long been critical of the outlet, claiming it’s biased, has long-standing labor violations, and is foreign-owned. This angle of attack was the focus of Duterte’s allies when they questioned the outlet during its hearings; however, many of these claims were debunked during the committee hearings.
As for the claims that its biased, that may be true. The outlet refused to air election ads from Duterte in 2016, and was accused by the then-candidate of favoring his opponent.
The outlet has since been a thorn in Duterte’s side because of its ongoing coverage of his drug war. Since taking office, Duterte has encouraged a war on drugs that has seen thousands of vigilante and capricious killings of civilians over accusations they are involved in the drug trade. Police have also been used to carry out attacks.
ABS-CBN has been extremely critical of the attacks and has long kept track of the extra-judicial killings, broadcasting their findings to millions of Filipinos. Duterte already wasn’t a fan of journalists, calling them “sons of bitches” and warning they weren’t exempt from physical attacks, but ABS-CBN’s reporting put it in the crosshairs of the president.
On multiple occasions, the president has stated that he planned to get the broadcaster’s license revoked, even as recently as December telling the station, “I will see to it that you’re out.”
However, despite his long history of disliking the outlet, the president’s spokesman, Harry Roque, tried to distance Duterte from the decision in a statement.
“The palace has maintained a neutral stance on the issue as it respects the separation of powers between the two coequal branches of government. Much as we want to work with the aforesaid media network, we have to abide by the resolution of the House committee,”
Duterte’s War on Journalists
ABS-CBN warned its 11,000 employees that if their license wasn’t renewed, they could expect to be laid off. Assuming their appeal is denied, that is expected to happen.
Congressman Carlos Zarate was appalled at this prospect and the committee’s decision, saying, “Why should we add 11,000 more to the number of unemployed in this most difficult time?” He was alluding to the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the Philippines particularly hard with over 50,000 cases nationwide.
Human rights and media organizations decried the vote as a continuation of Duterte’s assault of the free press. The Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines said in a statement, “The decision deprives the Filipino people of an independent source of information when millions are grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.”
Another recent example of Duterte’s war against journalists is Maria Ressa, the head of the popular news site Rappler. She has also been critical of the government and its extrajudicial killings as part of its war on drugs. Last month, she was found guilty of libel in a case seen by many as an attempt to silence the site. She faces upwards of six years in prison.
Despite nominally enshrining the freedom of the press in its constitution, the Philippines ranks among the worst in the world in that regard, currently placed at 136 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index.
In addition to revoking the broadcast license of outlets that are critical of the president and charging reporters with libel, Reporters Without Borders claims, “Private militias, often hired by local politicians, silence journalists with complete impunity.”
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CBS News) (BBC)
Body of Missing Seoul Mayor Found Just Days After He Faced Sexual Harassment Allegations
- Park Won-Soon, the mayor of Seoul, was reported missing on Thursday and was found dead early Friday morning, days after reportedly being accused of sexual harassment by a former secretary.
- His death was officially considered a suicide after a note was found at his residence.
- The allegations are particularly shocking because Park was a known advocate for women’s rights and was considered a potential presidential candidate.
- His accuser suggested more of Park’s victims existed but were scared to come forward. In accordance with South Korean law, an investigation into the matter has been dropped because of his death.
Body Found at Bukaksan
The mayor of Seoul, a potential presidential candidate and arguably the second most powerful public official in the country, was found dead on Friday, roughly two days after a former secretary from his office accused him of sexually harassing her in 2017.
According to authorities, the body of Park Won-Soon was found on a forested hill on Bukaksan, a mountain in northern Seoul, not too far from his home in the Jongno neighborhood. CCTV footage showed the mayor arriving at the park by taxi at 10:53 a.m. on Thursday. By 5:17 p.m. Thursday, his daughter filed a police report stating that he “had left home four to five hours ago” and left a message that sounded like his will. By this point, his phone was turned off.
Shortly after the report, upwards of 600 officers, K-9 units, and medical personnel were dispatched to search for the mayor. At 12:01 a.m. Friday, his body was found near a bag, a water bottle, a cell phone, writing utensils, and Park’s business card. Police reported that there were no signs this case was a homicide, and after the unveiling of a note from his residence, it was considered a suicide.
In the note, Park wrote that he was “sorry” to everyone and specifically stated that he was sorry to his family for “causing only pain.” His note made no mention of the allegations against him.
Police are in talks with the Park family over whether to conduct an autopsy. In the meantime his body is being kept at Seoul National University Hospital, where supporters could be seen outside crying and shouting, “Get up, Park Won-Soon,” and “We’re sorry, Park Won-Soon!”
Park’s death is a dramatic loss for the city for a variety of reasons. Despite South Korea having the highest suicide rate among the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, suicide by politicians is quite rare. Additionally, Park has been a staple of life in Seoul, which dominates the political landscape of South Korea. He was the longest serving mayor in the country’s history, having been in the role since 2011.
He was also considered a likely candidate to run for the Democratic party after President Moon Jae-in’s term was up in 2022 – the same time Park’s most recent mayoral tenure would end.
The circumstances leading up to his presumed-suicide have also left many South Korean citizens shocked. On Wednesday, a former secretary from his office went to police and filed a report accusing the mayor of sexual harassment, although this accusation wasn’t public until after Park went missing.
For years, South Korea has been embroiled in its own #MeToo reckoning, leading to many actors, businessmen, and politicians losing their positions and often facing jail time.
However, the allegations against Park, of which few details are actually known to the public, reportedly include unwanted physical contact and inappropriate messages. His alleged victim, according to Chosun Ilbo, gave investigators messages and inappropriate photos Park had sent her while she worked for him. She also allegedly said that there were more victims who were too scared to come forward.
The allegations are particularly shocking because of Park’s past. The mayor was long been considered a pillar of civil rights and women’s rights. He was famous for being a prominent civil rights attorney who founded the nation’s most influential civil rights group.
During his time as a lawyer, he campaigned on behalf of “comfort” women, Korean sex slaves who were forced into the role by the Japanese during the 1930s and ’40s. He also won major cases, including a case in the ’80s, during the country’s dictatorship, against a police officer who molested a woman while she was being interrogated. One of his biggest accolades was winning South Korea’s first sexual harassment case ever in the ’90s.
These actions were often praised by supporters because they challenged South Korea’s strict hierarchical and patriarchal structure, which are ingrained into the culture and language.
During his time as mayor, he focused on the environment and urban renewal for Seoul. Park also focused on fighting and containing COVID-19, leading to Seoul, a city of 10 million, having less than 2000 cases. For comparison, the city of Los Angeles, which is similar in population but less densely populated, had well over 50,000 cases.
Five Days of Funeral Services
In accordance with South Korean law, the police investigation against Park will be dropped due to his death. That’s because police won’t have someone to actually charge a crime with.
Although, when city officials were asked if they would be conducting their own investigation, officials said they are “not yet aware” of the allegations.
Park’s note mentioned that he wished to be cremated and have his ashes spread over his parents’ graves. Currently, the city of Seoul will be holding a mayoral funeral for Park, which means it will last five days. Generally speaking, Korean funerals last three days.
An altar will be set up in front of City Hall in Seoul for citizens and staff members wanting to mourn Park’s death.
See What Others Are Saying: (Yonhap News Agency) (Chosun Ilbo) (The Korea Times)
Hong Kong Bans Students From Engaging in Politics, Nations Respond to National Security Law
- In compliance with Hong Kong’s strict national security law, Hong Kong students are now being banned from engaging in political activity such as singing, skipping class, and posting online.
- Books and other educational material are being removed from libraries or placed under review if they break four crimes under the law: treason, sabotage, espionage, and terrorism.
- Critics and nations, like the US, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK, have called the law vague and are reexamining their relationships with Hong Kong.
- Most recently, Australia suspended its extradition treaty with the city over the recent changes, while also moving to expand visas for Hong Kongers.
Hong Kong University Bans
Students within Hong Kong are now banned from engaging in all political activity as of Wednesday.
This is just the most recent change to Hong Kong life after China’s new national security law was put into effect on June 30. Other changes include banning speech that violates the Four Rules: “treason, sabotage, espionage, or terrorism.”
On Wednesday the city’s education secretary Kevin Yeung announced that “schools are obliged to stop” students from engaging in a ton of political activity, citing that at least 1,600 students under the age of 18 had been arrested at protests.
He added, “We would like to reiterate that no political propaganda activities should be allowed in schools, and no one, including students, should play, sing, and broadcast songs which contain political messages or hold any activities to express their political stance.”
This means activities like posting political slogans, forming human chains, or singing “Glory to Hong Kong” (the unofficial anthem of the protests) are now prohibited. That song, in particular, was targeted because it “contains strong political messages and is closely related to the social and political incidents, violence and illegal incidents that have lasted for months. Therefore, schools must not allow students to play, sing or broadcast it in schools.”
Some of the most serious fighting between protesters and police took place at universities and officials likely hope this move will sap the energy of many pro-democracy protesters, as students were a driving force for the movement.
Hong Kong Quickly Changing
Beyond banning students from protesting, Hong Kong has seen many political activities curbed. Last week, popular slogans associated with the protests were banned for breaking the Four Rules of the national security law. Slogans like “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times!” and “Hong Kongers, build a nation,” are now illegal and seen as undermining Chinese national sovereignty.
One aspect of the national security law and its Four Rules often criticized are that they’re so vague. Nearly any pro-Democracy advocate in Hong Kong is considered to be breaking the law, which over the weekend led to public libraries being forced to review books in their collections that could break these rules.
This meant that a wide array of books are currently “under review” to determine whether or not they need to be banned.
A similar move was made on Monday when Hong Kong’s Education Bureau issued new rules to universities throughout the territory that would also ban books and learning materials.
The rules include banning education materials, “If any teaching materials have content which is outdated or involves the four crimes under the law, unless they are being used to positively teach pupils about their national security awareness or sense of safeguarding national security, otherwise if they involve other serious crime or socially and morally unacceptable act, they should be removed.”
So, what books can be expected to see a ban in schools? If the public library ban is used as a guideline, books by pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong are likely the first to be removed. Activists Joshua Wong and Tanya Chan both had their books removed from shelves while they are “under review.”
Wong was quick to criticize the move, saying on Monday, “If basic freedom still exists under the national security law, how come the book I published when I was still in high school was banned in the Hong Kong public library?”
The activist went on to add, “It’s not only about the political rights any more. It’s not only about the rights of protesters. It’s about the fundamental freedom or liberty that everyone cherish in this city, being eroded and fade out already.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement criticizing the extent to which the national security law is being implemented, “With the ink barely dry on the repressive National Security Law, local authorities — in an Orwellian move — have now established a central government national security office, started removing books critical of the CCP.”
He also lamented that rights Hong Kong previously enjoyed, which were shared by most developed Democratic nations, were now eroded, such as freedom of the press.
For their part, the Hong Kong government under Chief Executive Carrie Lam has tried to spin the new national security law and all of the rules coming out because of it as a good thing for freedom in Hong Kong. On Tuesday she told reporters, “Instead of spreading fear, the law will actually remove fear and let Hong Kong people return to a normal peaceful life and Hong Kong will resume its status as one of the safest cities in the world.”
Freedom of the Press
All of these provisions have caused widespread fear over the freedom of the press, which had widespread freedoms in the city before last week. For example, on Monday the Hong Kong government announced that RTHK, a public broadcaster in the city, would be undergoing a six-month review of their “governance and management.” It’s widely assumed that the means the station will be purged of any anti-Chinese Communist party viewpoints.
Despite this, Lam tried to say that journalistic freedom would still exist in Hong Kong. She told journalists that they wouldn’t face censorship or prosecution under the law by stating, “if journalists can guarantee that they won’t breach this law, then I can also guarantee the same.”
This means journalists are safe from prosecution as long as they don’t report on any facts that break the national security law – a law that is written to apply worldwide. Recent coverage detailed that posts written in America are subject to the law, so journalists critical of the regime face repercussions upon entering Hong Kong.
Nations Respond to Shifts
Since the national security law went into effect, Hong Kong has been quickly changing, which has caused countries to reexamine their relationship with the city. Many nations gave Hong Kong special exemptions on the premise that it was separate and distinct from mainland China.
Since June, the U.S. has stated that they would no longer give Hong Kong special trade exemptions, which added fuel to the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China. The U.S. wasn’t alone, over the last week New Zealand announced it would also review its relationship with Hong Kong and consider new visa and trade rules.
Canada approached the situation from a different angle, announcing last week they would be pulling out of an extradition treaty with the city. That move was followed up by Australia, which announced on Monday that it would also suspend their extradition treaty.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a press conference the country was also changing visas for Hong Kongers, “There will be citizens of Hong Kong who may be looking to move elsewhere, to start a new life somewhere else, to take their skills, their businesses.”
Hong Kong students, graduates, and workers in Australia on temporary visas will now have the opportunity to stay and work for an extra five years, and then apply for permanent residency after that time.
The new system, on the surface, sounds similar how the UK plans to deal with Hong Kongers wishing to move to the UK. Although a deeper looks shows they are quite different, notably the UK’s version applies to people who hold a BNO passport. Those passports holders include over 300,000 people who were born in Hong Kong before the territory was transferred back to China.
Australia’s rules would apply to about 10,000 Hong Kongers living in the country.
Although future student visas would also cover a five-year period; however, Morrison said they were “not expecting large numbers of applicants any time soon.”
China was extremely upset with Australia’s decision and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian warned that Australia should stop interfering in Chinese affairs. He added that China could retaliate by reminding the Australians that most of their exports go to China.
Throughout the world, democratic leaders like Angela Merkel have been pressured to act as the Chinese Communist Party continues to be a polarizing figure on the world stage.