Why we need a little skepticism, and more evidence, on Russian bounties

Why we need a little skepticism, and more evidence, on Russian bounties
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The most fundamental task of both journalists and intelligence analysts is to clarify the often blurry line separating truth and falsehood. They must deal with a firehose of unverified claims pouring into their inboxes daily, and the consequences of lending credence to false reports can be severe. Sound analysis requires a careful balance between over- and under-connecting the dots. The recent track record in this endeavor, however, is discouraging. The Russian bounty controversy is the latest example.

This story has unfolded in two parts. The first is the allegation, which has seized American media headlines, that a secret Russian military intelligence unit has been paying Afghan militants to kill Americans. The second is the claim that President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE either knows about this activity and has done nothing, or has preemptively closed White House doors to reports of Russian malfeasance.

The initial question to ask in evaluating the veracity of the allegation is, how credible are the sources? Here, the answer: not very. According to the New York Times, the primary sources are militants and criminals captured and interrogated by Afghanistan’s government. But human sources are often intentionally or unintentionally misleading. Captured militants frequently tell their interrogators things they hope will win more lenient treatment. Others relate stories they honestly believe, but amount to little more than hearsay. “Curveball,” the aptly named source for the now discredited claim in 2002 that Iraq had built mobile biological weapons laboratories, simply lied to his intelligence handlers to advance his anti-Saddam agenda.

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The second question is, what other information might support or disconfirm the allegations? Here, too, there is reason for skepticism. The Times cites evidence of “large financial transfers” from Russian military intelligence to the Taliban. But scrutiny of that datapoint raises some puzzling questions. Between 14 and 22 Americans were killed in Afghanistan each year from 2016 to 2019; nine have been killed so far this year. If the Russian money indeed was sent to fund a bounty program within this time frame, why has it not had much impact? And if the Times report of large financial transfers — one of which was at least $500,000 — is accurate, it would appear that the typically tight-fisted Russians either were paying enormous sums per kill or were paying in advance, which is not how bounties usually work.

Which brings us to a third question: Who benefits from these allegations? The list certainly includes the central Afghan government, which has overseen the interrogations on which the story is based and desperately wants the U.S. military to remain in Afghanistan, despite President Trump’s efforts to wind down our presence. Few things could more effectively throw a wrench into the gears of Afghan peace talks than credible reports that the Taliban is working with Russians to kill Americans. The list also includes Trump’s domestic political opponents, who long have attempted to tar him with false accusations of working on the Kremlin’s behalf or even on its payroll. The discredited Russian collusion story is a prime example of this effort.  

Notably, the list does not include Russia. Moscow encouraged and supported the U.S. war against the Taliban for many years after the 9/11 attacks, but as the United States has drawn down its presence, it has backed both a U.S. withdrawal and peace talks with the Taliban. The Kremlin is not looking for ways to impede U.S. departure from a region that Moscow once dominated. Rather, it is trying to cultivate relationships with the many warlords and factions that are likely to rule Afghanistan’s various regions in the aftermath of the American withdrawal. That effort very likely includes limited provisions of weapons and money to Taliban leaders, but it would be quite surprising if it also included special bonuses for killing individual Americans.

Why such skepticism? For one thing, this kind of scalp-hunting would be an unprecedented escalatory act. Even at the height of the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States refrained from such activity, despite engaging enthusiastically in proxy warfare in theaters around the world. The KGB even sought an explicit understanding with the CIA that neither organization would kidnap or assassinate its rival’s personnel, largely because it feared where such targeting could lead.

Russia today is undoubtedly hostile toward the United States and desirous of curtailing American global influence, but it nonetheless has not thrown all caution to the wind. There is no evidence that the Russians are head-hunting in Syria, where they would have greater incentives to target Americans and greater ability to do so. Instead, they have by universal acknowledgement worked with their U.S. counterparts to deconflict Russian and American military operations there. In 2018, when U.S. forces used the deconfliction channel to warn of a looming attack by a large contingent of Russian mercenaries who were trying to dislodge the U.S. from a strategic position in Syria, Russian officials did nothing to dissuade U.S. commanders from counterattacking, and Moscow did absolutely nothing after hundreds of Russian fighters were subsequently killed and wounded.

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Finally, it is impossible to escape the impression that the rush toward outrage over the Russian bounty allegations is tinged with more than a whiff of hypocritical political opportunism. Senior Democrats who have been quick to charge Trump with treason for failing to punish the Russians might recall their own support for striking nuclear deals and lifting sanctions on Iran not long ago, despite undisputed facts that Teheran provided actual training, operational intelligence and weapons to Iraqi insurgents that led to the killing and maiming of thousands of American soldiers.

None of this disproves the allegation that the Russians are paying bounties for dead Americans in Afghanistan, an activity that, if true, would require a resolute U.S. response. It is not out of the question that the Russian government or parts of it might see such bounties as payback for perceived U.S. perfidy in Ukraine, Georgia and Russia itself. But it certainly means that the standard of evidence for validating such allegations should be much higher than our media’s barely concealed lust to embrace them would suggest.

Confirmed or not, the allegations should serve as a sobering reminder that unconstrained shadow warfare with Moscow can produce genuine dangers for Americans. One glaring difference between the Cold War and today is that the Cold War was fought within the parameters of agreed rules. Today, we have almost none. We would be wise to consider this as our national discourse on Russia proceeds.

David B. Rivkin, Jr., is a constitutional lawyer who has served in the Justice and Energy departments and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. He also worked for a number of years for the Defense Department as a defense and foreign policy analyst specializing in Soviet nuclear weapons policy.

George S. Beebe is vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest, former head of Russia analysis at the CIA, and author of “The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe.”