NOEL KING, HOST:
Did Russia pay Taliban-linked militias to kill coalition and U.S. troops in Afghanistan? It's a story that was first reported by The New York Times. The Times reports that President Trump knew about this, that intelligence officials told him. The president says that's not true. He says the intelligence community told him that they didn't brief him because they didn't consider the information credible.
Ellen Nakashima is a national security reporter with The Washington Post. She's been breaking some news on this one. Good morning, Ellen.
ELLEN NAKASHIMA: Good morning, Noel.
KING: Let me start by having you explain this bounty program and what Russia was trying to do exactly in Afghanistan.
NAKASHIMA: Well, according to intelligence reports that our sources were briefed on, Russian - the Russian military spy agency the GRU was offering bounties to Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan to kill coalition troops. The reason is not clear. There is speculation it might have to do with wanting to disrupt some of the sporadic efforts at peace talks between the Americans and the Taliban or that it might have been some form of revenge for efforts by American troops to kill Russian mercenaries in Syria in early 2018, after they attacked a U.S. base in eastern Syria.
It's not clear how high up the bounties were authorized, whether Russian President Vladimir Putin himself was aware. But what is clear, Noel, is that for roughly the last decade, the GRU has been emboldened to carry out a series of evermore brazen attacks to destabilize and divide its opponents in the West, including the United States.
KING: The GRU is a unit we're familiar with. They poisoned Sergei Skripal. That was the Russian spy living in the U.K. They have been up to a lot. It seems worth asking, as you report this out, is there proof that this resulted in the deaths of any U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan?
NAKASHIMA: We do not know exactly what proof the intelligence agencies have. What we do know is that some of this came from U.S. military interrogations of captured militants in Afghanistan in recent months. And this intelligence was discussed at a restricted high-level meeting in late March at the White House National Security Council. Out of that meeting, NSC officials then tasked the CIA to review the intelligence. And after that process of review, which could take weeks, we understand they basically confirmed the reports, which had come initially from special operations forces in Afghanistan.
KING: And yet the president, President Trump, says he didn't know anything about this, which seems quite confusing, frankly.
NAKASHIMA: Yes. In fact, that is still - that's a big question. Trump has been saying that he was not informed. The director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, also said neither the president nor the vice president was briefed. It could be that officials were waiting to brief him until they had verified the intelligence and had also come up with a list of response options that they might put before him to take to, you know, punish or deter Moscow. The White House also said yesterday that they were still evaluating the veracity of the underlying allegations.
KING: What will lawmakers want to know? Just quickly.
NAKASHIMA: Yeah, they are very concerned. They want to know whether the report of the bounties is true, whether Trump was briefed or, if not, why not and, most importantly, what is the administration going to do about it?
KING: Ellen Nakashima of The Washington Post. Ellen, thanks for your time.
NAKASHIMA: Thank you.
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