It was a big national security story only a few days ago, but like any news these days it simply disappeared within some 72 hours. In case you missed it the essence was that the U.S. intelligence community had determined that Russian military intelligence (GRU) had been engaged with the Taliban to encourage attacks on American forces, and had even offered bounties for American deaths.
While the intelligence community was significantly in agreement to repeatedly put the possibility of Russian involvement with the Taliban in Presidential security briefs, no action at all had been taken in response to the intelligence over a period of several months. Putting the matter into context, it appears President Trump and his national security advisors had made it so clear over time that president did not want to hear negative intelligence on Russia that there was no taste for pushing the report or forcing the issue of even a minimal response. Of course that in itself is not news by this point in time.
Even when the issue was forced by public exposure, the White House responded that there was going to be no response. The reasons given were diverse, including the fact that the intelligence was incomplete and that not all elements of the intelligence community were able to support it. Intelligence community sources suggested that the report had largely been based on human intelligence, and that while the CIA found them extremely credible, NSA was unable to confirm with technical intelligence. That would not really be surprising given the nature of the Russian contacts with the Taliban.
What the White House did not comment on was that regardless of the “bounty” issue, the intelligence contained hard data including financial transactions which certainly confirmed that Russian military intelligence was in contact with and engaged with the Taliban – and not in a manner that contributed to the security or military activities of Americans in Afghanistan.
The White House also commented that there would be no response since the intelligence was “not actionable”. That sounds like a formal term and perhaps it actually meant something – with that in mind a little context is necessary to judge the overall incident and the White House response.
First off, ”actionable intelligence” means only is that the intelligence is specific enough that a threat has been identified to the extent that the source is identifiable, its nature of the threat has been characterized, and plans can be made to deal with it in some fashion. In this particular instance all of those criteria were clearly met.
Secondly, threat intelligence is always less than one hundred percent certain and it’s not at all uncommon to find differences in levels of assessment from the various parts of the intelligence community. That’s why there is a Director of National Intelligence and a staff that is built to be the most experienced and expert resource the nation has available – with the ability prepare the best overall judgement. In this instance that is exactly what was done and why this particular threat made it into the President’s daily security briefing.
One of the major areas of progress in national intelligence over the decades has been to move on from one person decisions within individual agencies or military services. There a number of examples of how one person decisions have led to disasters. For example before Pearl Harbor FBI Director Hoover had been given considerable evidence indicating that Japan was actively collecting combat intelligence for a strike at Pearl Harbor, however Hoover did not endorse nor promote the information and it received no War Department consideration. During the Korean War, General MacArthur was provided with intelligence pointing to a massive (and imminent) Chinese intervention, but he chose not to credit or endorse the information to the Joint Chiefs or to President Truman, and his forces were shattered by massive Chinese ground forces.
Over the time our intelligence community did evolve beyond that and there is now considerable information sharing, an intelligence group dynamic, and an overall position with the experience and expertise to weigh positions among the agencies and produce a balanced product – which goes to the president. In earlier administrations that position was headed by the CIA Director, not it’s the Director of Nation Intelligence. In both instances the intelligence and estimates are gated by the president’s own national security advisor, that is intended to enhance the process and in some cases it has – in other cases it has not.
Late in the Clinton administration a relatively vague but urgent threat emerged, from jihadists who were organizing to make major soft target attacks during the celebrations at the end of the century. In that case the national security advisor responded and had the confidence of President Clinton and a series of “millennium” attacks were interdicted in both the U.S. and Canada. A year later, much more specific intelligence emerged about Al Qaeda plans to attack the U.S. – either overseas or domestically. In that case the national security advisor, reflecting President Bush’s priorities, gave no particular endorsement to the intelligence, carried out no actionable response and even with special efforts by the CIA to brief President Bush on the threat, no real initiative was launched to deal with it. After September 11 the explanation was given that the threat was too vague and not actionable.
It is fair to say that given the size and nature of the American intelligence community, as of this date no potential threat (whether to the nation, American citizens or its military forces) gets into the president’s daily brief without considerable endorsement to support it. In particular, nothing about Russia is going to get into President Trump’s briefing papers without having a reasonably solid level of support. And it’s not going to get there if there are not some sorts of actions that could be initiated to explore it, prioritize or even to reduce or neutralize it. In the end the excuse that Russian engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan is going to simply be ignored because it is not “actionable” just does not wash – what it boils down to is yet another matter of personal (albeit executive) priorities as to whether action is taken.
In this particular instance, the presidential decision not to respond in any fashion may be excused, supported or cursed, however one thing is certain – it most certainly does provide a window into President Trump’s priorities.