NSA Differed From CIA, Others on Russia Bounty Intelligence

By Gordon Lubold and Warren P. Strobel
Updated June 30, 2020 7:38 pm ET

WASHINGTON—The National Security Agency strongly dissented from other intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia paid bounties for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, according to people familiar with the matter.

The disclosure of the dissent by the NSA, which specializes in electronic eavesdropping, comes as the White House has played down the revelations, saying that the information wasn’t verified and that intelligence officials didn’t agree on it.

Because of that, President Trump was never personally briefed on the threat, the White House said, although the information was included in written intelligence materials prepared for Mr. Trump and has been known for several months, some lawmakers said after briefings this week at the White House.

It couldn’t be learned why the NSA differed from others—including the Central Intelligence Agency—about the strength of the intelligence. The differences weren’t over the central assessment that operatives with Russia’s GRU intelligence agency paid bounties to the insurgent Taliban movement to kill Americans, some of the people said.

In the nuanced practice of intelligence analysis, which involves piecing together sometimes incomplete and ambiguous bits of data, such disagreements aren’t unusual, and sometimes stem from institutional differences, experts and former officials have said.

The NSA focuses on electronic eavesdropping, mining intercepted phone conversations, texts and emails, and other electronic signals. The CIA’s role is human intelligence, which on battlefields such as Afghanistan often means interrogation of enemy detainees.

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The NSA in the past has been more conservative than other U.S. intelligence agencies in its analysis of high-profile intelligence matters involving Russia. A January 2017 intelligence-community assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, ordered by then-outgoing President Obama, stated that while the CIA and Federal Bureau of Investigation had “high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin aspired to help Mr. Trump’s electoral chances, the NSA reported only “moderate confidence” of that finding.

The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report in April that concluded the analytic difference between NSA and the other intelligence agencies in that case was “reasonable, transparent, and openly debated among the agencies and analysts, with analysts, managers, and agency heads on both sides of the confidence level reasonably justifying their positions.”

The NSA declined to comment in an email to The Wall Street Journal. The CIA has declined to comment on the issue, aside from a statement late Monday by CIA Director Gina Haspel, in which she decried media leaks and indicated analysis of the threat to U.S. troops is ongoing.

Pentagon officials late Monday said the military was still evaluating intelligence that Russian GRU operatives were engaged in malign activity against the U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. “To date, DOD [the Department of Defense] has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports,” the statement said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday met with a top Taliban leader to discuss a peace agreement. Mr. Pompeo reminded Mullah Baradar to adhere to the Taliban’s commitments, “which include not attacking Americans,” a statement said.

The issue of the Russian-Taliban arrangement has roiled Washington since Friday, with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers demanding briefings on the issue and information on how Mr. Trump and his national security team have handled it. Republicans lawmakers were briefed by the White House on Monday, and a group of Democrats were briefed Tuesday.

Members of the House Intelligence Committee are due to be briefed by intelligence officials on Thursday morning, a congressional official said.

While White House officials said Mr. Trump never received an in-person briefing on the reported threat to U.S. troops, information about the intelligence assessment apparently was included in his written daily intelligence briefing, Republican lawmakers said.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) said following a White House briefing that the intelligence was included in the President’s Daily Brief, the main intelligence summary presented to the White House, but said it was still being verified. “It was not to the point of verification, where it would have been highlighted,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas) after a White House briefing Monday, told NBC: “I believe it may have been” in the PDB.

Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, wouldn’t say Tuesday if the PDB in the past contained the intelligence, citing secrecy. Mr. Trump, she said, had been briefed on the intelligence in recent days.

The president’s intelligence briefing—actually delivered now on a secure iPad—“has gotten smaller and more graphical-oriented” under Mr. Trump, said Robert Cardillo, a former senior career intelligence official who served as editor of the PDB from 2010-2014, said.

Mr. Trump isn’t an avid reader of the written materials, according to former officials. But Mr. Cardillo said intelligence briefers are able to highlight an issue, or seek feedback on it, in what he called the “walk-on brief”—the verbal, in-person session between the president and his briefers.

John Bolton, who served as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser for 18 months, wrote in a book published this month that the president typically received two intelligence briefings a week, fewer than his predecessors. “In most of those, he spoke at greater length than the briefers, often on matters completely unrelated to the subjects at hand,” Mr. Bolton wrote.

Sen. Todd Young (R., Ind.) said that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee from both parties have had access to the intelligence for some time.

“Every single member, Republican and Democrat alike, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is aware, should have been aware, of the intelligence that I was briefed on. It’s long been available,” he said.

One person familiar with the issue said that written reports on the intelligence were made available to Senate Intelligence Committee members earlier this year, although not all senators on the panel necessarily read the documents, which can only be viewed in a secure room.

In an interview with the Journal, Mr. McCaul said one U.S. intelligence agency was “strongly dissenting” with another over the assessment, but he wouldn’t name the agencies at odds or the issues in question.

After a White House briefing Tuesday, Rep. Adam Smith (D., Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said White House officials outlined evidence of Russian wrongdoing.

“They did not dispute that there is some intelligence that supports the conclusion,” Mr. Smith said. But they insisted there is other intelligence “that disputes the conclusion,” he said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) said he and other Democrats at the briefing, which was delivered by White House personnel rather than intelligence or military officials, were left with more questions.

“The president called this a hoax publicly. Nothing in the briefing we just received led me to believe this was a hoax,” Mr. Hoyer said.

—Dustin Volz and Lindsay Wise contributed to this article.

Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com and Warren P. Strobel at Warren.Strobel@wsj.com