Russia, Bountiful Hoaxes and The New York Times
There is a delicious irony in the Russia bounty scandal. The Russians, funding the very entity that was financed, at least in a previous incarnation, by the Central Intelligence Agency, to supposedly kill the warriors of a country that had funded them. The karmic wheel of boggled minds finds its turn, and US forces, it is said, became the target of a Russian bounty program funded via the Taliban. Cue some bewildered head-scratching.
The problem with such assertions is that they are caked and cluttered in qualification, vagueness, and slipperiness. The argument that the GRU was part of a scheme to pay the Taliban bounties for US soldiers found its way into the mainstream, and duly polluted it. Not that the Washington and intelligence community had anything to complain about. The funneling of US hardware and material via Pakistan to the mujahedeen during the 1980s had one express purpose: killing and maiming Soviet soldiers and precipitating an eventual withdrawal. Taking the long view, this would have merely been settling scores.
The New York Times got the bounty story rolling on June 26, 2020. “The Trump administration has been deliberating for months about what to do with a stunning intelligence assessment.” Charlie Savage, lead author on the story, was delighted to note reaffirmations of the Times account from the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. The main papers were worshipping at the same altar of veracity, with John Hudson of the Post claiming confirmation of “the New York Times scoop: A Russian military spy unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan.”
The Times report was hopelessly laden with qualifications and unnamed officials (“American officials say,” “Officials have also suggested,” “Some officials have theorized”). This very practice flies in the face of the paper’s own policy. “There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source,” reasoned public editor Daniel Okrent in 2004. This was prudent, given the paper’s own inglorious reporting on the existence, or not as it were, of Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction in 2003.
What has nagged certain members of the intelligence community is the extent of President Donald Trump’s knowledge. Was he briefed about the program, if, in fact, it existed? For the president, the entire affair was a hoax, and when Trump declares something a hoax, the mainstream media stable christen it as gospel. As he tweeted, “The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party. The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself.”
The CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center did not show staunch certitude about the whole thing. They claimed with “medium confidence” that the GRU had paid bounties to Taliban fighters with the specific intent purpose of killing US soldiers, an operation that resulted in fatalities. Other agencies were less certain, giving such assessments a “low confidence” rating. “I think there are contradictory pieces of intelligence on this,” suggested Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a view not to be cast off coming from a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Politico, on the other hand, wanted to find something. Surely, such an allegation had to have some residual relevance? “The stalemate underscores the difficulties lawmakers face in confronting an increasingly emboldened Russia – especially in an election year, when Republicans are unlikely to publicly break with the president, who has sought to maintain a good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin even as he continues to alarm some in the GOP with his deferential posture toward the Russian leader.” Faith becomes the substitute for evidence.
J. Dana Stuster, deputy foreign policy editor at Lawfare, is adamant that this has cost the Russian bear dearly, even if he is not entirely sure what that the value of that costing is. Stuster is a believer untroubled by the tested factual record. What is relevant is Russian behaviour. “The bounty program fits a pattern of Russian policy in Afghanistan rooted in Russia’s perceptions of its own national interest in maintaining influence in its near abroad. It may be a reprisal, but it is definitely strategic.” This hashed slurry that counts as analysis is the sort of stuff that stains foreign policy think tanking, but it cannot be any other way.
The next level of analysis shifts from the Russia did it school of persuasion to Russia did not manage to do much damage, a neat cop-out that still does much to undermine the assertions. But the most profound deflating moment came in the form of comments by General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command. “I found it worrisome,” he reflected. “I just didn’t find that there was a causative link there.” He further suggested that the “case wasn’t proved to me – it wasn’t proved enough that I’d take it to a court of law – and you know that’s often true in battlefield intelligence.”
There is no getting away from McKenzie’s qualifications that demolish the edifice that was the New York Times effort in late June. They are so profound as to constitute a repudiation. For instance, in the words of the general, “reports of this nature have been out there for a while, but it was very very low levels of authenticity about them.” On July 8, the Times, deep in the slop bucket, editorialised in weasel fashion. “Allegations of bounties paid for the deaths of US soldiers are serious. But the White House ought to stay the course toward a peace deal.” The paper admitted that there was “still a lot missing from the reports that Russia paid for attacks on American and other coalition forces in Afghanistan. That’s why it’s critical that emotions and politics be kept at bay until the facts are in.” Pity they did not wait.