Suspicions of Russian bounties were bolstered by data on financial transfers
02 Jul 2020

Analysts have used other evidence to conclude that the transfers were most likely part of an effort to offer payments to Taliban-linked militants to kill American and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

American officials intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account, evidence that supported their conclusion that Russia covertly offered bounties for killing U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, according to three officials familiar with the intelligence.

Though the United States has accused Russia of providing general support to the Taliban before, analysts concluded from other intelligence that the transfers were most likely part of a bounty program that detainees described during interrogations.

Investigators also identified by name numerous Afghans in a network linked to the suspected Russian operation, the officials said — including, two of them added, a man believed to have served as an intermediary for distributing some of the funds and who is now thought to be in Russia.

The intercepts bolstered the findings gleaned from the interrogations, helping reduce an earlier disagreement among intelligence analysts and agencies over the reliability of the detainees. The disclosures further undercut White House officials’ claim that the intelligence was too uncertain to brief President Trump. In fact, the information was provided to him in his daily written brief in late February, two officials have said.

Afghan officials this week described a sequence of events that dovetailed with the account of the intelligence. They said that several businessmen who transfer money through the informal “hawala” system were arrested in Afghanistan over the past six months and were suspected of being part of a ring of middlemen who operated between the Russian intelligence agency, known as the G.R.U., and Taliban-linked militants. The businessmen were arrested in what the officials described as sweeping raids in the north of Afghanistan as well as in Kabul.

A half-million dollars was seized from the home of one of the men, added a provincial official. The New York Times had previously reported that the recovery of an unusually large amount of cash in a raid was an early piece in the puzzle that investigators put together.

The three American officials who described and confirmed details about the basis for the intelligence assessment spoke on the condition of anonymity amid swelling turmoil over the Trump administration’s failure to authorize any response to Russia’s suspected proxy targeting of American troops and playing down of the issue after it came to light four days ago.

White House and National Security Council officials declined to comment, as did the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe. They pointed to statements late Monday from Mr. Ratcliffe; the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien; and the Pentagon’s top spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman. All of them said that recent news reports about Afghanistan remained unsubstantiated.

The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, berated The Times on Tuesday after this article was published, saying that reports based on “selective leaking” disrupt intelligence gathering. She did not address or deny the facts about the intelligence assessment, saying she would not disclose classified information.

By Charlie Savage, Mujib Mashal, Rukmini Callimachi, Eric Schmitt and Adam Goldman, The New York Times, 30 June 2020

Read more at The New York Times

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