The White House acknowledged Thursday that U.S. intelligence agencies found only “low to moderate” confidence in reports that Russian agents offered bounties to Taliban fighters last year to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, a story that Democrats used to club then-President Trump as weak on Moscow.
A senior administration official said the bounty reports, which were spread widely in liberal media outlets during the presidential campaign, relied in part on the testimony of sometimes unreliable detainees. Officials also said a “challenging operating environment” in Afghanistan made the reports less reliable.
“U.S. intelligence community agencies have low to moderate confidence in this judgment,” a senior official said.
News stories about the alleged bounties last summer had prompted then-candidate Joseph R. Biden and congressional Democrats to attack Mr. Trump for failing to confront Moscow, in the heat of the presidential campaign.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday expressed no regret about Mr. Biden’s political attacks over the issue last year. She said that since Mr. Biden took office, “we wanted our intelligence community to look into those reports.”
“They assessed with low to moderate confidence … that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel,” she said.
The New York Times first reported last June that the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that a unit within the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, offered payments to Afghan militants for attacks on coalition forces. Other media outlets said they confirmed the report, which created a backlash among some veterans and active-duty military with Mr. Trump’s candidacy.
The report created a political furor on Capitol Hill from Democrats demanding answers from the Trump administration and slamming Mr. Trump for not punishing Russia. The reports built on, and often explicitly cited, another since-debunked narrative: that the Trump campaign had colluded with the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election that Mr. Trump won.
Former Trump officials said Thursday that the Biden administration was walking back the reports after the story had served its political purpose for Mr. Biden.
“The Russian bounty story was a willful, intentional misrepresentation of low level intelligence — and just about everyone who pushed it knew that,” tweeted former Trump aide Ben Williamson. “And now it gets ‘walked back’ months after the damage is done. No words.”
Former White House Communications Director Alyssa Farah said Trump officials, including then-National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien, “repeatedly told the public this story was unverified & unproven.”
“I saw the intel,” she tweeted Thursday. “The media failed on the reporting around this & the public was misled.”
Former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany noted that at the time of the reports last year, she had called them “not verified,” “no consensus” and accused The New York Times and Democrats of “irresponsibly politicizing” the story.
There were also calls by conservatives Thursday for Twitter and Facebook to take action against journalists who promoted the story last year.
The White House, which announced a wave of sanctions against Russia on Thursday over Moscow’s cyberattacks and election interference, said it would not make public its response over the alleged bounties. The administration said because of “the sensitivity of this matter,” it will be handled through “diplomatic, military and intelligence channels.”
“The safety and well-being of U.S. military personnel, and that of our allies and partners, is an absolute priority of the United States,” the White House said.
Former Obama national security aide Tommy Vietor said U.S. intelligence “seems to be walking back the claim that Russia paid the Taliban bounties to attack U.S. troops.”
“If true, that’s a huge f— up,” he tweeted. But he also noted that then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confronted Russia’s foreign minister directly about the reports last year.