U.S. Intel Has ‘Low to Moderate’ Confidence in Reports of Russia-Taliban Bounties

The U.S. intelligence community cannot conclusively say that Russian spies offered Taliban militants bounties to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, the White House said Thursday.

Spokesperson Jen Psaki spoke of “low to moderate confidence” in the 2020 reports of the cash incentives based on anonymous sources as Washington widened sanctions on Russia for election interference and cyber attacks. The Biden administration explained Thursday that it wouldn’t levy specific measures in response to the bounty reports, but was instead dealing with them through “diplomatic, military and intelligence channels.”

“The reason that they U.S. intelligence have low to moderate confidence in this judgment is in part because it relies on detainee reporting,” Psaki said at a press briefing.

Psaki also attributed the low confidence in the reports’ accuracy to the “challenging operating environment in Afghanistan.”

She noted however that the U.S. intelligence community has “high confidence” in the assessment that Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency interacts with Afghan criminal networks.

“The involvement of this GRU’s unit is consistent with Russia’s encouraging attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan,” Psaki said, adding that this “puts the burden on the Russian government to explain their engagement.”

The Kremlin had dismissed the story as “100% bullsh*t” when The New York Times’ report first broke last June.

This week, U.S. President Joe Biden announced plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, satisfying the Taliban’s key demands and ending America’s longest war, by Sept. 11.

FBI probing if emails part of influence operation

The FBI is investigating whether emails that were published by the New York Post related to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, are connected to a possible Russian influence operation to spread disinformation, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The newspaper said in its story Wednesday that it had obtained a hard drive from Rudy Giuliani containing the emails, and that the messages were found on a laptop that had been left last year at a Delaware computer repair shop for service but never retrieved.

The unlikely account of how the emails surfaced raised immediate questions about Russian involvement, particularly because U.S. officials have warned that Russia — which backed Trump’s 2016 campaign through hacking and a covert social media campaign — is interfering again this year.

The episode is being investigated as part of a possible Russian influence operation, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press to discuss an ongoing matter. It underscores the extent to which Giuliani, through his activities, is a risk to a White House that spent years shadowed by a federal investigation into whether Trump associates had coordinated with Russia.

The authenticity of the emails remained unclear as of Friday, including whether they were hacked or possibly forged or both. Giuliani did not respond to an Associated Press request for comment, but he said in a Fox News interview Friday that the material was “authentic as hell.”

An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment Friday, citing the bureau’s practice of neither confirming nor denying investigations.

NBC News was the first to report the FBI’s investigation.

Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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