- 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.”
Petition Calls for Ban on Sexualized Fanfiction in South Korea
- A petition circulating across South Korea calls for sexualized fanfiction depicting K-pop stars and other real people to be outlawed and classified as sex crimes.
- The petition particularly focuses on the way male stars are depicted in same-sex relationships and argues that they often feature people who are minors.
- A similar petition was submitted last week to President Moon Jae-in; however, it focused on deep fakes. Because both petitions have over 200,000 signatures, they will need to be addressed by President Moon.
K-Pop Fanfiction Causes Chaos
A petition began circulating across South Korea this week demanding that “real person slash” fanfiction works be outlawed and charged as sex crimes.
“Real person slash” refers to a specific form of fanfiction that most often features sexualized versions of K-pop stars and other real people.
In particular, the petition focuses on the way male stars are depicted in same-sex relationships and the age of some of the people being portrayed. The petition notes, “due to the nature of the profession of idols, whose average age is young, many of the victims are still minors or children.”
The petition was submitted to the Blue House, South Korea’s version of the White House, and currently has over 200,000 signatures. It received a big boost in attention after K-pop star Nancy, from the group Momoland, was secretly filmed by a member of her agency while she was changing backstage. This person then doctored some of the images and uploaded them online.
While Nancy’s case isn’t hand-drawn fanfic, it did fuel outrage at what’s seen as an ineffective approach towards sex crimes in the country. Signers of this petition believe that these fanfics fall into the same category of likely illegality as deep fakes.
Deep Fakes Also Being Targeted
Additionally, just last week deep fakes – which often feature k-pop stars – had its own petition submitted to the president last week with over 300,000 signatures.
Because both petitions have over 200,000 signatures, they will need to be addressed by President Moon Jae-in
For years South Korea has struggled with secret cameras, deep fakes, revenge porn, and more violent sex crimes, such as the infamous Nth Room case that saw certain stars filming themselves having sex with women against their consent.
See What Others Are Saying: (CNA) (The Korea Herald) (South China Morning Post)
Italy Begins Largest Mob Trial in Decades
- Italian prosecutors have started their trial against more than 320 defendants linked to the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
- The charges range from murder and drug trafficking to extortion and money laundering.
- The case is so large, high-profile, and potentially dangerous that the government built a bunker for the event in Calabria, the home territory of the ‘Ndrangheta.
- Details uncovered could deliver a massive blow to organized crime in Italy and potentially across the world as the ‘Ndrangheta has major dealings in Europe, Australia, and the Americas.
Hundreds of ‘Ndranghetisti Facing Charges
A major mob trial kicked off in Italy Wednesday involving more than 320 defendants who are part of or associated with the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
In addition to these defendants going on trial, 90 others have elected for a fast-tracked trial elsewhere in Calabria.
While this is a massive affair, it’s still not the country’s largest mob-related trial in history. That happened in the ’80s against the Cosa Nostra from Sicily.
The trial is so high-profile and potentially dangerous that the government built a bunker for the event in Calabria, close to the home territory of the ‘Ndrangheta.
The court is looking at many charges against the defendants, including extortion, drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, and Mafia association – a term used in Italy’s penal code for members of organized crime.
Breaking Into the Family
Investigators hope that the trial will show just how entrenched organized crime is in the territory, as it’s believed that the ‘Ndrangheta has dealings with local politicians and businessmen. These dealings are believed to not only stem from their illicit activities but also from their legitimate businesses that were initially funded via crime-related funds. Either way, the trial is seen as a major blow for the group.
The organization is made up of multiple groups of tight-knight families that are all interconnected. For years investigators have tried to get more information on the group but following the arrest and prosecution of Luigi Mancuso, a boss in the ‘Ndrangheta, investigators finally had a way to look more closely at 12 families who make up part of the ‘Ndrangheta.
During their investigation police and prosecutors managed to turn some members of those families and use them as informants. They are expected to take the stand as witnesses during the trial. In total, prosecutors hope to put bring out over 900 witnesses.
If successful, this could be a massive blow to organized crime in Italy and potentially across the world as the ‘Ndrangheta has major dealing in Europe, Australia, and the Americas.
See What Others Are Saying: (ABC News) (LA Times) (Chicago Tribune)
Hundreds Sickened By Mysterious Illness in India
- A mystery illness has hospitalized over 500 people in India and is linked to one death. While most people have recovered and been discharged from the hospital, under 100 people are still being treated.
- Health officials believe that it is not a viral infection and that it is not tied to the coronavirus pandemic. One official told The Washington Post that it is a “point source epidemic,” but no one knows what is causing it.
- Blood tests showed patients had high levels of lead and nickel and officials are trying to find what is behind that. Some are also pointing to pesticides used in mosquito treatment as a potential cause behind the outbreak.
- Still, health officials are puzzled, and the situation comes while India currently trails the United States as the country with the most coronavirus cases. This mystery outbreak is also occurring in one of the hardest-hit states.
Mystery Illness in India
Health officials are still looking for what might be causing a mysterious illness that has sickened hundreds of people this month in India.
The unidentified illness has put over 500 people in the hospital and taken one life. Most patients have been discharged and recovered but under 100 are still being treated. The disease was first reported on Sunday, and new instances have gone down since the start of the week.
The outbreak started in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Symptoms range from nausea to anxiety to loss of consciousness, and in some cases, seizures. Some reports say the patient who died suffered from a seizure. Others note they may have fallen as well.
Many patients describe the sickness as hitting them quickly and suddenly as they were going about their day. Some got foggy vision, sore eyes, or incredibly tired before passing out. Many woke up in the hospital and were left with a gap in their memory.
While the cause of this disease is unknown, health officials do not believe it is tied to the coronavirus in any way as no patients have tested positive. The illness is also not believed to be a viral infection of any kind.
“What has been established by experts is that this is a case of acute intoxication of toxins. It is not chronic in nature. This is all we know for now,” one high-ranking official told The Washington Post.
Because cases are already slowing significantly, some believe it might have stemmed from an isolated source or event.
“This is a point source epidemic,” another official told the Post. “Whatever happened, occurred for one particular day and some people got affected. The number of new patients has dropped.”
What that source or event may have been remains a mystery that officials are eager to solve. So far, no commonalities have been found between the patients as they all live in different places, are of different ages, and do not test positive for other kinds of illnesses that could be causing or contributing to this outbreak. Clues are beginning to emerge, though.
One medical official told Al Jazeera that high lead and nickel levels were found in the blood tests of patients. So far, ten have been tested and another 30 will be tested shortly. At first officials thought these levels may have been a result of water contamination, but after water tests were conducted, neither lead nor nickel were found.
Water contamination as a whole has not been ruled out though.
“Health experts suspect that excessive use of bleaching powder and chlorine in sanitation programmes as part of Covid-19 prevention measures may be the cause of water contamination,” the Health Minister of Andhra Pradesh told the Indian Express. “This is just one of the causes we are exploring.”
Another theory at play stems from the fact that organochlorines, which are used as pesticides in mosquito control, were found in some water samples. One of the federal legislators in the state believes that the sickness could be tied to that. A public health director confirmed to Al Jazeera that “it is one of the possibilities.”
Timing With COVID-19
Still, all these ideas simply remain possibilities and officials have far more questions than they have answers about this situation. Health officials from the country and the World Health Organization have established a presence in Andhra Pradesh to get to the bottom of the situation.
The timing of this outbreak is unfortunate as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread through India. While daily cases are much lower than they were when it peaked in September in the country, it still remains an issue.
India is behind the United States in seeing the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases, totaling 9.7 million infections. Around 141,000 people have died in the country. In August, their outbreak was the fastest growing in the world. Andhra Pradesh is among the hardest-hit states in the country.
Hope is on the horizon as India, like many other countries, could be on track to approve a vaccine within weeks. According to Reuters, health officials will prioritize 300 million people, including healthcare workers, policemen, and those above the age of 50.