- 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.”
U.K. Court Rules Julian Assange Can Be Extradited to U.S.
The judgment overrules a lower court decision that blocked the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition on the grounds that his mental health was not stable enough to weather harsh conditions in the American prison system if convicted.
New Developments in Assange Extradition Battle
A British court ruled Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act that could land him in prison for decades.
Prosecutors in the U.S. have accused Assange of conspiring with former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 to hack into a Department of Defense computer network and access thousands of military and diplomatic records on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The information obtained in the hack was later published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011, a move U.S. authorities allege put lives in danger.
In addition to a charge of computer misuse, Assange has also been indicted on 17 espionage charges. Collectively, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 175 years.
The Friday decision from the High Court overturns a lower court ruling in January, which found that Assange’s mental health was too fragile for the harsh environment he could face in the U.S. prison system if convicted.
Notably, the January ruling did not determine whether or not Assange was guilty. In fact, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser explicitly rejected the defense’s arguments that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he should be protected under freedom of press.
However, she agreed that the defense had provided compelling evidence that Assange suffers from severe depression and that the conditions he could face in the U.S. prison system were “such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”
The U.S. appealed the ruling, arguing that Assange’s mental health should not be a barrier to extradition and that the psychiatrist who examined him had been biased.
In October, the Biden administration vowed that if Assange were to be convicted, he would not be placed in the highest-security U.S. prison or immediately sent to solitary confinement. Officials also said that the native Australian would be eligible to serve his sentence in his home country.
High Court Ruling
The High Court agreed with the administration’s arguments in its ruling, arguing that the American’s assurances regarding the conditions of Assange’s potential incarceration were “sufficient.”
“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say,” the ruling stated. “There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.”
Assange’s fiancé, Stella Moris, said in a statement that his legal team would appeal the decision to the British Supreme Court at the “earliest possible moment,” referring to the judgment as a “grave miscarriage of justice.”
The Supreme Court will now decide whether or not to hear the case based on if it believes the matter involves a point of law “of general public importance.” That decision may take weeks or even months.
If the U.K. Supreme Court court objects to hearing Assange’s appeal, he could ask the European Court of Human Rights to stay the extradition — a move that could set in motion another lengthy legal battle in the already drawn-out process.
Assange and his supporters claim he was acting as an investigative journalist when he published the classified military cables. They argue that the possibility of his extradition and prosecution represent serious threats to press freedoms in the U.S.
U.S. prosecutors dispute that Assange acted as a journalist, claiming that he encouraged illegal hacking for personal reasons.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)
Early Data Indicates Omicron is More Transmissible But Less Severe
The studies come as Pfizer and BioNTech claim that preliminary research shows a third shot of their COVID vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the new variant, but two doses alone may not.
More Information About Omicron
Several preliminary studies published in recent days appear to show that the new omicron COVID-19 variant may be more transmissible but less severe than previous strains.
One recent, un-peer-reviewed study by a Japanese scientist who advises the country’s health ministry found that omicron is four times more transmissible in its initial stage than delta was.
Preliminary information in countries hit hard by omicron also indicates high transmissibility. In South Africa — where the variant was first detected and is already the dominant strain — new COVID cases have more than doubled over the last week.
Health officials in the U.K. said omicron cases are doubling every two or three days, and they expect the strain to become dominant in the country in a matter of weeks.
In a statement Wednesday, World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while early data does seem to show high transmissibility, it also indicates that omicron causes more mild cases than delta.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevent Director Rochelle Walensky echoed that sentiment, telling reporters that of the 40 known omicron cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday, nearly all of them were mild. One person has been hospitalized so far and none have died.
Studies on Vaccine Efficacy
Other recent studies have shown that current COVID vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death in omicron patients, and boosters provide at least some added protection.
On Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that laboratory tests have shown a third dose of their COVID-19 vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant, though two doses may not.
According to the companies, researchers saw a 25-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies for omicron compared to other strains of the virus for people who had just two Pfizer doses.
By contrast, samples from people one month after they had received a Pfizer booster presented neutralizing antibodies against omicron that were comparable to those seen against previous variants after two doses.
Still, Pfizer’s chief executive also told reporters later in the day that omicron could increase the likelihood that people might need a fourth dose earlier than previously expected, which he had initially said was 12 months after the third shot.
Notably, the Pfizer research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and it remains unclear how omicron will operate outside a lab, but other studies have had similar findings.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Bloomberg) (NBC News)
40 Camels Disqualified From Beauty Contest After Breeders Inject Their Faces With Botox
The animals were barred from competing for $66 million in prizes at this year’s King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Saudi Arabia.
Camels Booted From Beauty Contest
More than 40 camels were disqualified from a beauty contest in Saudi Arabia this week after judges found artificial enhancements in their faces, marking the biggest crackdown on contestants in the competition to date.
The animals were competing for $66 million in prizes at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, a month-long event that is estimated to include around 33,000 camels.
However, according to The Guardian, they were forced out of the contest when authorities found that breeders had “stretched out the lips and noses of the camels, used hormones to boost the animals’ muscles, injected heads and lips with Botox to make them bigger, inflated body parts with rubber bands, and used fillers to relax their faces.”
Those types of alterations are banned since judges look at the contestant’s heads, necks, humps, posture, and other features when evaluating them.
An announcement from the state-linked Saudi Press Agency said officials used “specialized and advanced” technology to detect tampering.
“The club is keen to halt all acts of tampering and deception in the beautification of camels,” the SPA report added before warning that organizers would “impose strict penalties on manipulators.”
While it’s unclear what that actually entails, this isn’t the first time people have tried to cheat in this way.
In 2018, 12 camels were similarly disqualified from the competition for injections in their noses, lips, and jaw.