i thought it was the CIA trying to fool the pentagon and failing

How the Pentagon failed to sell Afghan government’s bunk ‘Bountygate’ story to Pindo intelligence agencies
Gareth Porter, Grayzone, Jul 8 2020

The NYT dropped another Russiagate bombshell on Jun 26 with a sensational front-page story headlined “Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill Pindo Troops, Intelligence Says.” A predictable media and political frenzy followed, reviving the anti-Russian hysteria that has excited the Beltway establishment for the past four years. But a closer look at the reporting by the NYT and other mainstream outlets vying to confirm its coverage reveals another scandal not unlike Russiagate itself: the core elements of the story appear to have been fabricated by Afghan government intelligence to derail a potential Pindo troop withdrawal from the country. And they were leaked to the NYT and other outlets by Pindo national security state officials who shared an agenda with their Afghan allies. In the days following the story’s publication, the maneuvers of the Afghan regime and Pindo national security bureaucracy encountered an unexpected political obstacle: Pindo intelligence agencies began offering a series of low confidence assessments in the Afghan government’s self-interested intelligence claims, judging them to be highly suspect at best, and altogether bogus at worst. In light of this dramatic development, the NYT’s initial report appears to have been the product of a sensationalistic disinformation dump aimed at prolonging the failed Afghan war in the face of President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw US troops from it.

The NYT not only broke the Bountygate story but commissioned squads of reporters comprising nine different correspondents to write eight articles hyping the supposed scandal in the course of eight days. Its coverage displayed the paper’s usual habit of regurgitating bits of dubious information furnished to its correspondents by faceless national security sources. In the days after the Times’ dramatic publication, its correspondent squads were forced to revise the story line to correct an account that ultimately turned out to be false on practically every important point. The Bountygate saga began on Jun 26, with a NYT report declaring “Pindostan concluded months ago” that the Russians “had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.” The report suggested that Pindo intelligence analysts had reached a firm conclusion on Russian bounties as early as January. A follow-up NYT report portrayed the shocking discovery of the lurid Russian plot thanks to the recovery of a large amount of Pindo cash from a “raid on a Taliban outpost.” That article sourced its claim to the interrogations of “captured Afghan militants and criminals.” However, subsequent reporting revealed that the “Pindo intelligence reports” about a Russian plot to distribute bounties through Afghan middlemen were not generated by Pindo intelligence at all.

The NYT reported first on Jun 28, then again on Jun 30, that a large amount of cash found at a “Taliban outpost” or a “Taliban site” had led Pindo intelligence to suspect the Russian plot.  But the NYT had to walk that claim back, revealing on Jul 1 that the raid that turned up $500k in cash had in fact targeted the Kabul home of Rahmat’ullah Azizi, an Afghan businessmen said to have been involved in both drug trafficking and contracting for part of the billions of dollars that Pindostan spent on construction projects. The NYT also disclosed that the information provided by “captured militants and criminals” under “interrogation” had been the main source of suspicion of a Russian bounty scheme in Afghanistan. But those “militants and criminals” turned out to be thirteen relatives and business associates of the businessman whose house was raided.

The NYT reported that those detainees were arrested and interrogated following the Jan 2020 raids based on suspicions by Afghan intelligence that they belonged to a “ring of middlemen” operating between the Russian GRU and so-called “Taliban-linked militants,” as Afghan sources made clear. Furthermore, contrary to the initial report by the NYT, those raids had actually been carried out exclusively by the Afghan intelligence service known as the National Directorate of Security (NDS). the NYT disclosed this on Jul 1. Indeed, the interrogation of those detained in the raids was carried out by the NDS, which explains why the Times reporting referred repeatedly to “interrogations” without ever explaining who actually did the questioning.

Given the notorious record of the NDS, it must be assumed that its interrogators used torture or at least the threat of it to obtain accounts from the detainees that would support the Afghan government’s narrative. Both the Toronto Globe and Mail and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) have documented as recently as 2019 the frequent use of torture by the NDS to obtain information from detainees. The primary objective of the NDS was to establish an air of plausibility around the claim that the fugitive businessman Azizi was the main “middleman” for a purported GRU scheme to offer bounties for killing Pindos. NDS clearly fashioned its story to suit the sensibilities of the Pindo national security state. The narrative echoed previous intelligence reports about Russian bounties in Afghanistan that circulated in early 2019, and which were even discussed at NSC meetings. Nothing was done about these reports, however, because nothing had been confirmed.

The idea that hard-core Taliban fighters needed or wanted foreign money to kill Pindo invaders could have been dismissed on its face. So Afghan boxtops spun out claims that Russian bounties were paid to incentivize violence by “militants and criminals” supposedly “linked” to the Taliban. These elements zeroed in on the Apr 2019 IED attack on a vehicle near the Pindo military base at Bagram in Parwan province that killed three Pindo Marines, insisting that the Taliban had paid local criminal networks in the region to carry out attacks. As former Parwan police chief Gen Zaman Mamozai told the NYT, Taliban commanders were based in only two of the province’s ten districts, forcing them to depend on a wider network of non-Taliban killers-for-hire to carry out attacks elsewhere in the province. These areas included the region around Bagram, according to the Afghan government’s argument. But Dr Thomas H Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School, a leading expert on insurgency and counter-insurgency in Afghanistan who has been researching war in the country for three decades, dismissed the idea that the Taliban would need a criminal network to operate effectively in Parwan. “The Taliban are all over Parwan,” Johnson stated in an interview with The Grayzone, observing that its fighters had repeatedly carried out attacks on or near the Bagram base throughout the war.

Senior Pindo natsec boxtops had clear ulterior motives for embracing the dubious NDS narrative. More than anything, those boxtops were determined to scuttle Trump’s push for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. For Pentagon brass and civilian leadership, the fear of withdrawal became more acute in early 2020 as Trump began to demand an even more rapid timetable for a complete pullout than the 12-14 months being negotiated with the Taliban. It was little surprise then that this element leapt at the opportunity to exploit the self-interested claims by the Afghan NDS to serve its own agenda, especially as the November election loomed. The NYT even cited one “senior official” musing:

The evidence about Russia could have threatened that deal, because it suggested that after eighteen years of war, Mr Trump was letting Russia chase the last Pindo troops out of the country.

In fact, the intelligence reporting from the CIA Station in Kabul on the NDS Russia bounty claims was included in the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) on or about Feb 27, just as the negotiation of the Pindo peace agreement with the Taliban was about to be signed. That was too late to prevent the signing but timed well enough to ratchet up pressure on Trump to back away from his threat to pull all Pindo troops out of Afghanistan. Trump may have been briefed orally on the issue at the time, but even if he had not been, the presence of a summary description of the intelligence in the PDB could obviously have been used to embarrass him on Afghanistan by leaking it to the media. According to Ray McGovern, a former CIA official who was responsible for preparing the PDB for Reagan 40 and Bush 41, the insertion of raw, unconfirmed intelligence from a self-interested Afghan intelligence agency into the PDB was a departure from normal practice. Unless it was a two or three-sentence summary of a current intelligence report, McGovern explained, an item in the PDB normally involved only important intelligence that had been confirmed.  Furthermore, according to McGovern, PDB items are normally shorter versions of items prepared the same day as part of the CIA’s “World Intelligence Review” or “WIRe.” Information about the purported Russian bounty scheme, however, was not part of the WIRe until May 4, well over two months later, according to the NYT. That discrepancy added weight to the suggestion that the CIA had political motivations for planting the raw NDS reporting in the PDB before it could be evaluated.

This June, Trump’s National Security Council (NSC) convened a meeting to discuss the intelligence report, officials told the NYT. NSC members drew up a range of options in response to the alleged Russian plot, from a diplomatic protest to more forceful responses. Any public indication that Pindo troops in Afghanistan had been targeted by Russian spies would have inevitably threatened Trump’s plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan. At some point in the weeks that followed, the CIA, DIA and NSA each undertook evaluations of the Afghan intelligence claims. Once the NYT began publishing stories about the issue, DNI John Ratcliffe directed the National Intelligence Council, which is responsible for managing all common intelligence community assessments, to write a memorandum summarizing the intelligence organizations’ conclusions. The memorandum revealed that the intelligence agencies were not impressed with what they’d seen. The CIA and National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) each gave the NDS intelligence an assessment of “moderate confidence,” according to memorandum. An official guide to intelligence community terminology used by policy-makers to determine how much they should rely on assessments indicates that “moderate confidence” generally indicates that “the information being used in the analysis may be interpreted in various ways.” It was hardly a ringing endorsement of the NDS intelligence when the CIA and NCTC arrived at this finding. The assessment by the NSA was even more important, given that it had obtained intercepts of electronic data on financial transfers “from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account,” according to the NYT’s sources.  But the NSA evidently had no idea what the transfers related to, and essentially disavowed the information from the Afghan intelligence agency.

The NIC memorandum reported that NSA gave the information from Afghan intelligence “low confidence,” the lowest of the three possible levels of confidence used in the intelligence community. According to the official guide to intelligence community terminology, that meant that “information used in the analysis is scant, questionable, fragmented, or that solid analytical conclusions cannot be inferred from the information.” Other intelligence agencies reportedly assigned “low confidence” to the information as well, according to the memorandum. Even the DIA, known for its tendency to issue alarmist warnings about activities by Pindo adversaries, found no evidence in the material linking the Kremlin to any bounty offers. Less than two weeks after the NYT rolled out its supposed bombshell on Russian bounties, relying entirely on national security officials pushing their own bureaucratic interests on Afghanistan, the story was effectively discredited by the intelligence community itself. In a healthy political climate, this would have produced a major setback for the elements determined to keep Pindo troops entrenched in Afghanistan. But the political hysteria generated by the NYT and the hyper-partisan elements triggered by the appearance of another sordid Trump-Putin connection easily overwhelmed the countervailing facts. It was all the Pentagon and its bureaucratic allies needed to push back on plans for a speedy withdrawal from a long and costly war.

As Long As Mass Media Propaganda Exists, Democracy Is A Sham
Caitlin Johnstone, Jul 9

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll has reportedly found that a majority of Americans believe the completely discredited narrative that the Russian government paid Taliban-linked fighters to kill the occupying forces of Pindostan and its vassals in Afghanistan. Reuters reports:

A majority of Pindos believe that Russia paid the Taliban to kill Pindo soldiers in Afghanistan last year amid negotiations to end the war, and more than half want to respond with new economic sanctions against Moscow, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday. Overall, 60% of Pindos said they found reports of Russian bounties on Pindo soldiers to be ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ believable, while 21% said they were not credible and the rest were unsure.

Those 21% are objectively correct. The story is not credible, and it’s not even close. Gareth Porter shows (above) how the “Bountygate” narrative is so utterly baseless that even Pindo intelligence agencies have dismissed it, Joe Lauria of Consortium News explains how it doesn’t make any sense on its face, and FAIR’s Alan MacLeod (below) breaks down the appalling journalistic malpractice that went into circulating this incredibly thinly sourced story to the mainstream public. The story advances no solid facts or verified information. What it does advance is pre-existing imperialist agendas like remaining in Afghanistan, killing the last of the remaining nuclear deals with Moscow, and manufacturing public support for new Russia sanctions. And yet a majority of people believed it, and still believe it. The narrative that Russia paid Taliban fighters to kill occupying forces is now regarded as an established fact in many key circles, despite being backed by literally zero facts.

If people were as objective and adept at critical thinking as we tend to believe we are, the mass media’s unconscionable facilitation of a brazen cold war psyop would by itself have killed off all public trust in the institution of mass news reporting. But people are not as objective and adept at critical thinking as we tend to believe we are. People have many cognitive biases which distort our ability to objectively process information and understand events, including one which causes us to believe something is true just because they’ve heard it said multiple times. This makes us easily susceptible to mass media propaganda, where our encounters with daily news headlines can shape our perception of what’s going on in the world regardless of whether or not those headlines are backed by actual facts.

This latest poll is a perfect example of how the plutocrat-owned media manipulate public opinion in the interest of establishment agendas using brazen propaganda campaigns, but it is just the most recent example. Over and over and over again we see public perception of what’s going on distorted by lies inserted into their minds by the corporate news media, like when half a year after the invasion of Iraq seven in ten Pindos believed Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. All it took to trick them into believing this and supporting the invasion was repeatedly mentioning 9/11 and Saddam in the same breath, despite there never being any evidence whatsoever for any such thing. This kind of manipulation is not rare, it is ubiquitous and ongoing. Every single day the plutocratic media are putting ideas in people’s minds which favor the establishment upon which said plutocrats have built their kingdoms, normalizing the insane status quo and manufacturing support for agendas which bolster it. This is not some delusional conspiracy theory, it’s a well-documented fact to which many mainstream journalists have testified. As long as this remains the case in our society, democracy cannot exist in any meaningful way. As long as a loose alliance of plutocrats and government operatives are able to consistently manipulate the way a critical mass of people think and vote, then you cannot rightly say that the people are in charge of the fate of their nation. If the majority is consistently in alignment with the plutocrats whose outsized media influence enables them to dominate the public narrative, then voting necessarily reflects the will of those plutocrats, not the people.

Even if you changed everything else that is wrong with the current system, nothing would change if the plutocratic class retained its ability to manipulate the way people think and vote. You can fix Pindostan’s garbage election integrity, end gerrymandering, even get money out of politics, but as long as the plutocratic class is still using its wealth to manipulate public thought in support of its interests, people would keep voting the way they’re manipulated to vote. Manipulation is a key ingredient in any long-term abusive relationship, because people don’t tend to stay in abusive situations unless they are manipulated into doing so. This is true whether you’re talking about romantic partnerships, governments, or globe-spanning power structures. We don’t use the power of our numbers to end this abusive relationship where we are at the whim of crushing austerity, exploitative neoliberalism, endless war and rapacious ecocide, because we’re being manipulated into staying. And, just like with any other abusive relationship, there comes a time to leave before it’s too late. That time is now. We can begin by expanding awareness of what’s really going on, both inwardly in ourselves and outwardly by sharing truthful information with others. In so doing, we stand a chance at making ourselves impossible to propagandize effectively and using our strength in numbers to force real change.

In ‘Russian Bounty’ Story, Evidence-Free Claims From Nameless Spies Became Fact Overnight
Alan MacLeod, FAIR, Jul 3 2020

The NYT (6/26/20) front-paged what “intelligence says,” while offering very little
explanation of why they say they believe it, or why we should believe them.

Based upon a bombshell NYT report (6/26/20), virtually the entire media landscape has been engulfed in the allegations that Russia is paying Taliban fighters bounties to kill Pindo soldiers. The WaPo (6/27/20) and the WSJ (6/27/20) soon published similar stories, based on the same intelligence officials who refused to give their names, and did not appear to share any data or documents with the news organizations. The NYT article’s lead author, Charlie Savage, tweeted:

The WaPo’s John Hudson seemed to back him up. He responded:

Yet these statements were categorically untrue. The NYT stressed how unsure they were about the allegations, using qualifying language throughout, such as “it was not clear” and “greater uncertainty.” And Hudson’s own article uses the phrase “if confirmed” in relation to the bounty claims, explicitly conceding they are not confirmed. Despite the fact that the anonymous accusations were far from proven, and that both the WaPo and the WSJ included categorical denials from all those involved, including the White House, the Taliban and Moscow, much of corporate media treated the story as an established fact from the outset. “This is jaw-dropping,” fumed MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (6/26/20) about the “sickening” news. She throws in an “if this NYT report is correct” before going on to treat is as “confirmed” information:

You know from this reporting in the NYT, which has since been confirmed by the WSJ, that not only does the president know that Russia was paying for Pindo soldiers’ deaths, paying rewards for Pindos dead … his response to that is nothing except a friendly call.

CNN (6/26/20) ran the headline “Russia Offered Bounties to Afghan Militants to Kill Pindo Troops,” while the Guardian (6/27/20) went with a British variant, “Russia Offered Bounty to Kill UK Soldiers,” in both cases presenting the allegations as facts. This would be troublesome enough, but there are a number of reasons to be skeptical of the veracity of the claims. Firstly, the NYT, WaPo and WSJ’s reports are all based on fundamentally untrustworthy actors who refuse to go on the record. Here is a list of all the sources mentioned in the NYT report:

  • “According to boxtops briefed on the matter”
  • “Boxtops said”
  • “Boxtops said”
  • “Boxtops said”
  • “Said Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for Pres Putin”
  • “Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied”
  • “The boxtops spoke”
  • “Russian government boxtops have dismissed such claims”
  • “Gen Nicholson, the commander of Pindo forces in Afghanistan at the time, said”
  • “Boxtops were said to be confident”
  • “Some boxtops have theorized”
  • “Boxtops have also suggested”
  • “The boxtops briefed on the matter said”
  • “Western intel boxtops say”
  • “Pindo intel boxtops say”
  • “Pindo boxtops say”
  • “Boxtops briefed on its operations say”

It is standard journalistic practice to name and check sources. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics insists that “reporters should use every possible avenue to confirm and attribute information before relying on unnamed sources,” and that we must “always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity,” because too many “provide information only when it benefits them.” Without a name to go with the source, there are no consequences for sources (or journalists, for that matter) lying and spreading malicious rumors. Using an anonymous source is implicitly asking readers to trust a reporter’s judgment and credibility. The practice is less important with minor details in a story (e.g. “a city nurse said three people had been injured”), but grows exponentially more vital when the source is the basis for the article, and when there are massive consequences in publishing the story. That is why it should be reserved for whistleblowers or others facing serious harm if caught. The NYT’s own guidelines on integrity strongly discourage the practice; the paper’s public editor wrote (5/30/04):

There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source.

Allowing unnamed boxtops to set the agenda in news is something FAIR has constantly criticized (6/25/14, 3/29/16, 4/26/17), and regularly leads to outlets being burned (6/30/17, 12/3/18). Therefore, they should be used only when a reporter is completely confident in their veracity. Considering who the sources were for the Russian bounty scandal (intel boxtops), the story, as it was published, should never have left the drawing board. As we wrote recently (2/28/20):

It is the job of the covert security services to lie and manipulate. They are among the least trustworthy groups in the world, journalistically speaking, as part of their profession involves planting fake information. The only group less deserving of blind faith than spies would be anonymous spies.

Unfortunately, reliance on such sources is near ubiquitous at the NYT and the WAPo. In 2011, FAIR (1/11/11) found that virtually every article on Afghanistan appearing in the two outlets over the course of a week featured material sourced from anonymous Pindo boxtops.

Janine Jackson (11/11) noted that journalists’ anonymity agreement with official sources
“works out swell for powerful people who’d prefer to avoid accountability for what they say,
and terribly for citizens for whom that accountability is crucial.”

The information on the Russian bounties appears to have been both minimal and vague, with boxtops refusing to show any corroborating evidence or the documents they claimed to have, and were unable to link the accusations to any concrete, real-world events. Perhaps more solid information will be provided at a later date, but the fact that what has been presented so far has turned into a major story is bizarre in itself. The first response of any credible journalist to receiving this tip, given to them by boxtops who refused to put their names to it, and who freely admitted, as the NYT report notes, that the information was derived from “interrogated” Afghan fighters, in a country were HRW (4/17/19) says the level of torture of detainees is “disturbingly high,” should have been to throw the story into the trash bin, at least until the officials agreed to go on the record.

That the authors of the NYT article share five Pulitzer Prizes between them suggests that this might not have simply been comically irresponsible and shoddy journalism, but something more intentional. As the three articles pointed out, the accusations come at a time when the Trump administration is negotiating with the Taliban and has committed to removing all troops from the country by next year (a move that is now being blocked by the House Armed Services Committee because of the bounty scandal). Crucial nuclear weapons limitations treaties are also expiring, with Moscow showing a keen interest in renewing them. But many boxtops argue that Pindostan should start a new atomic arms race, “spending” Russia into “oblivion.” Partially in response to the increased tensions between the two nations, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved its famous Doomsday Clock up to 100 seconds to midnight, signalling that they believe the world is closer than it has ever been to Armageddon, even than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This background should have been a red flag from the outset. It is rare that poor journalism threatens the fate of the planet, but increasing hostility between two nuclear-armed foes might be doing just that.

It’s bad news when the publication that tracks how close we are to the
end of the world (1/23/20) switches its gauge from minutes to seconds.

If the Taliban is indeed being paid to kill Pindo soldiers, they are not doing a particularly good job of it. Pindo losses in Afghanistan have slowed greatly, from dozens dying every month during Obama’s surge to only 22 in the past year. Over 1,700 died under Obama, compared to just a few dozen under Trump. To anyone concerned about protecting the lives of Pindo troops, the logical answer would be to remove them from Afghanistan, as both Obama and Trump have promised. Yet very few of the countless reports questioned either the wisdom or the legitimacy of the 19-year Pindo occupation of the country. If the story is true, Russia would be mirroring semi-official Pindo policy with regard to their own troops. In 2016, former acting DCI Michael Morell appeared on the Charlie Rose Show (8/8/16), and said it was his job to “make the Russians pay a price” for their role in the Middle East. When Rose asked if that meant killing Russians, he replied:

Yes, covertly. You don’t tell the world about it, you don’t stand up at the Pentagon and say ‘We did this,’ but you make sure they know it in Moscow.

Going further back, Pindostan channeled vast amounts of money to the Afghan Mujahidin in the 1980s “to make sure Afghans could do everything possible to kill Russians, as painfully as possible,” in the words of influential Rep Charlie Wilson. Following up on the story, the NYT published two further viral articles, claiming that Trump had been made aware of the Kremlin plot as early as February (6/29/20) and that Russia had sent large financial transfers to a Taliban-linked account (6/30/20). Yet both these stories suffered from the same deficiencies as the first one, depending on anonymous official sources making relatively unspecific claims while offering no evidence. Indeed, the unnamed “analysts” were only willing to say that the cash transfers were “most likely” part of the bounty scandal the NYT had broken four days earlier. Yet the effect was to bolster the veracity of what had come before in many people’s minds.

Meanwhile, Business Insider (7/1/20) ran a story “confirming” the unfolding bounty scandal, claiming that they had spoken to three Taliban sources who told them Russia and Iran offered them payments. As with the NYT, however, the sources were unwilling to put their names to the accusations. Perhaps more comically, Business Insider admitted that it did not even know the name of one of the “Taliban commanders” it cited, communicating to him only via Facebook. If this is how credulous Business Insider is, I know a Nigerian prince who is eager to talk to them about an urgent business proposal.

One source for Business Insider (7/1/20) says: ”It was well-known that groups
in need of money could work with Russians.” Another says: “There were many
affiliated groups that have maintained ties with Russia.” The third is someone
whose name Business Insider doesn’t know, that it communicated with only
through Facebook.

Independent journalist Caitlin Johnstone (6/28/20) suggested that corporate media could not be this obtuse, and that the affair suggested active collaboration between deep state and fourth estate, writing:

All parties involved in spreading this malignant psyop are absolutely vile, but a special disdain should be reserved for the media class who have been entrusted by the public with the essential task of creating an informed populace and holding power to account.

Media like the NYT and the WaPo pour scorn on Trump admin boxtops daily, yet appear to display complete reverence to the natsec state, treating three-letter agencies’ every utterance as gospel. In the wake of a number of high-profile police lies during the George Floyd protests, the WaPo (6/30/20) reported that newsrooms across the country are reflecting on their relationship with law enforcement and will no longer accept “police said” as fact. Perhaps they should do the same with intel boxtops.

2 Comments

  1. avram
    Posted July 9, 2020 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    what will they say when it gets to 101 seconds? i assume that when it gets very close to 100 they will start to divide seconds to at least 100 parts etc.

  2. niqnaq
    Posted July 9, 2020 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    The next stop is 99 seconds to midnight.

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