Experts Say Intel Should Have Reached Trump On Russian Bounty Program

Jul 4, 2020
Originally published on July 6, 2020 11:15 am

President Trump has said he was not told about a suspected Russian bounty program to pay the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Yet the president's critics, former intelligence officers and even some members of his own party have questioned this. They note that in addition to regular face-to-face security briefings, the U.S. intelligence community compiles a detailed, leather-bound book every weekday for Trump and his top advisers, known as the President's Daily Briefing.

The U.S. intelligence community began getting raw intelligence at least six months ago following raids in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the northern city of Kunduz. Those captured were interrogated and a large pile of cash was uncovered, according to The New York Times.

As intelligence agencies have assessed this raid and additional information, the CIA appears to have the highest degree of confidence in the existence of a Russian bounty program.

However, other senior national security officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and national security adviser Robert O'Brien have all issued statements saying their departments have not corroborated the media reports.

The White House said because there's no consensus in the intelligence community, advisers did not raise the matter with Trump until it broke in the press.

The President's Daily Briefing is the top-secret intelligence report the CIA presents to the president every weekday. The book shown here is for a briefing delivered to President George W. Bush in 2002.
Damian Dovarganes / AP

Sharing raw intelligence

But former intelligence officers say potentially critical raw intelligence, even if unconfirmed, is widely shared and should reach the president.

"The first myth about raw intelligence is that it is only seen by one analyst or a group of analysts," said David Priess, a former CIA officer who wrote a history of the presidential security briefings called The President's Book of Secrets. "In fact, raw intelligence is disseminated around the national security community. The White House Situation Room gets a feed of direct, raw intelligence, too."

Dan Hoffman, a former CIA station chief in Moscow who also worked in the Middle East, says it's important to share intelligence as widely and as quickly as possible.

"I served three years in overseas combat zones collecting this sort of tactical intelligence," he said. "It's not like fine wine getting better with age. You've got to get it out to the people at risk; that means our soldiers but also coalition forces."

"My concern as an intelligence officer would be, I don't want the president or his national security adviser to be blindsided when [British] Prime Minister Boris Johnson says, 'Hey, about that reporting we received that the Russians have a bounty out for our people in Afghanistan ...' " Hoffman said.

The director of national intelligence has the final say over what goes into the daily briefing book, though the CIA generates much of the content and all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies can contribute.

These intelligence streams flow into the various agencies around the clock, and overnight, while Washington sleeps, a team puts together the formal briefing book that's ready by daybreak.

Face-to-face briefings

The book, which typically includes up to 10 items, is available to Trump and his top advisers, though the president prefers to discuss the material in person and is briefed several times a week for about 30 minutes to an hour, according to officials familiar with the process.

Trump has been criticized for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and now the Russia bounty story. In both cases, the White House has tried to shift at least some of the blame onto the briefings.

The White House said the coronavirus threat to the U.S. was first mentioned in a briefing on Jan. 23, but only in a glancing way. And now it says the president was never told verbally about the Russian bounty story.

But in both cases, detailed material was reportedly available to the president and his top advisers in the briefing book.

Normally, the president's dedicated briefer is not publicly identified. But amid the recent controversies, Trump's has been named as Beth Sanner, a highly respected, 30-year veteran of the intelligence community.

President Lyndon Johnson reads the President's Daily Briefing as his wife Lady Bird Johnson holds their first grandchild in the White House.
AP

In addition to Sanner, the briefings are usually attended by CIA Director Gina Haspel and Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence. O'Brien, the national security adviser, is also present, and according to David Priess, the person in this position has to make sure the president gets the information he needs.

"The ultimate responsibility for getting national security information that the president needs, to the president, lies with the national security adviser," said Priess.

O'Brien, who assumed the position last September, is Trump's fourth national security adviser in less than four years.

The daily intelligence briefing dates to President Harry Truman, who requested it as he tried to make sense of a still-chaotic world in the aftermath of World War II.

Just two years ago, the CIA finally released those initial briefings to Truman, and the contents sound very familiar today. The first item from the first briefing was about the Soviet Union spreading disinformation about the U.S. That briefing also included reports about tensions in the Korean Peninsula and a U.S. trade dispute with China.

The briefings have been tailored to the wishes of each president.

President Richard Nixon didn't much care for them and only authorized one adviser to see them — Henry Kissinger. President Barack Obama got it on his iPad and read it privately, then discussed it throughout the day with the more than 30 other advisers who were also allowed to see it.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now moving on to another big story developing this week. President Trump says that he had no idea about a suspected Russian bounty program to pay the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Critics question this. They say the information was in the president's daily briefing. It's a detailed leather-bound book the intelligence community puts together for him every day. To tell us how this works, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Greg, thanks for being with us.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Clearly a very big story at a time when there are lots of big stories. Is it possible that President Trump wouldn't be told about this suspected Russian bounty program even if the intelligence was less than 100% certain?

MYRE: Well, that's what I've been asking, and it seems the U.S. Intelligence Committee began getting raw intelligence at least six months ago. There was a raid in Afghanistan. Some Taliban were captured and interrogated, and a large pile of cash was uncovered. Now, the CIA seems to have the highest degree of confidence that there was or is a Russian bounty program. Some of the other agencies say they haven't corroborated it. And the White House said for this reason, because there was no consensus, it wasn't presented to the president.

But former intelligence officers say that important raw intelligence, even if unconfirmed, is widely shared and should reach the president. One of the people I spoke with was David Priess, a former CIA officer who is part of the presidential briefing team and wrote a book about it called "The President's Book Of Secrets."

DAVID PRIESS: The first myth about raw intelligence is that it is only seen by one analyst or a group of analysts when, in fact, raw intelligence is disseminated around the national security community. The White House situation room gets a feed of direct raw intelligence, too.

SIMON: Greg, tell us more please about how this process is supposed to work.

MYRE: So the president's daily briefing is traditionally heavily a CIA product, but all 17 intelligence agencies can contribute. And these streams of intelligence are gathered throughout the day. And while Washington is sleeping, a team of intelligence officials puts together this book, the president's daily briefing. This happens every weekday. Though, in President Trump's case, he likes to be brief face to face.

SIMON: And who actually does that? Who's in the room with the president?

MYRE: Well, there is a dedicated briefer, and normally we wouldn't know the name of this person, but it has come out recently. She's Beth Sanner, and she's a highly respected 30-year CIA veteran. Now, the president's been criticized for his response to both the coronavirus and now the Russian bounty story. And the White House has sort of deflected some of the blame onto his briefings, saying the coronavirus briefing in January only glancingly mentioned the potential threat and that he wasn't told about this Russian bounty program.

But in both cases, the material was reportedly in the daily briefing. And the briefer's not alone. The CIA director, director of national intelligence is there. And David Priess says the most important figure in this process is the president's national security adviser.

PRIESS: The ultimate responsibility for getting national security information that the president needs to the president lies with the national security adviser.

MYRE: And that person is Robert O'Brien, who is president's trump fourth national security adviser.

SIMON: These daily briefings began in the Truman administration?

MYRE: That's right. Harry Truman was trying to make sense of the world after the chaotic aftermath of World War II. The very first briefing to him would sound familiar to us. It was about the Soviet Union spreading disinformation about the United States.

SIMON: NPR's Greg Myre, thanks so much for being with us.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.