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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 funnelling 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 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.

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  1. Jack Cade

    Yesterday my brother in law, a nice, ordinary Aussie, said to me ‘its awful what’s happening on HongKong, isn’t it?’
    I said ‘Not compared with what’s happening in Portland’
    He thought I meant Portland Vic., and the virus. He had NO idea that the US was being riven by supporters of Black Lives Matter and the entire array of US law enforcement and military personnel in many major US cities. In the US they are anarchists, in HongKong they are freedom fighters. He had absolutely no idea.
    That’s how they got away with Vietnam, Iraq, Nicaragua, Libya, Syria, Venezuela .

  2. Roswell

    Jack, it’s not going to stop at Portland. Trump has now cast his eyes towards Chicago.

    This is not just one of many turning points in Trump’s presidency, it could be the turning point (or tipping point) for America. Depends, of course, which direction it turns.

    Maybe it’s turned too far, even if Trump loses in November.

  3. Phil Pryor

    Unfortunately, too many poor types, devious, aggressive, self fixated, wannabe crims and “heroes” join up in military and police type services, ready to obey orders and thus be personally absolved of taint of criminality. It was ever so. Murder and theft and horror crimes do not “just happen.” If soldiers go to a foreign country to kill and torture citizens of those countries, civil or military, are they not murderers? Wars, murders, rebellions, murders, uprisings, demonstrations, revolutions, all are vile aggressions and usually many quite innocent and detached people are killed and maimed in the peripheries, on the edges, so-called collateral damage. Who should care if the killers are killed? So it follows that bounties, plots, bushwhacking, hi-jackings, bombings, assassinations, anything violent may follow. We have seen too much violence, in which leaders are executive murderers, as their actions, orders, plans, lead to death. And the tit for tats go on.., consider blood feud stories from old days, in the Balkans or Corsica, or “primitive ” parts. Human nature, hunnish…After Sadowa,1898, in hard rough Africa, the captured Italians, invaders, were sent home with balls in jars, a keepsake…

  4. Andrew J. Smith

    Quite perverse how the US and UK conservative libertarian governments seem to view Russia, if not an ally, an enemy of their enemies therefore a friend not to be held to account e.g. Russian influence in the UK was barely investigated, Trump crawling up to Putin etc..

    Further, Russia’s illiberal social conservatism and libertarian economic management, involving oligarchs, seems to be an aspiration for Republicans, Tories and many Australian conservatives e.g. ‘Russia must be respected because it’s a great, white and Christian nation with values…..’

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