Home / Articles / What the Russian Bounties Story Says About the National Security Process of the Trump Administration
With its passage of the National Security Act of 1947, Congress created the National Security Council (NSC) as part of its reorganization of the federal government’s national security apparatus following World War II. The primary role of the NSC is to advise the president regarding the integration of foreign, military, and domestic policies which relate to national security by evaluating risks to national security, weighing policy options, and providing the president with analysis and recommendations regarding those actions or policies.
Aside from its statutory membership, the organization and staffing of the NSC has varied with each White House administration largely in response to presidential preferences. While President Dwight Eisenhower frequently employed his NSC collectively to serve as his principal sounding board for evaluating options with respect to national security issues, President Richard Nixon relied on Henry Kissinger, alone, as his primary national security consultant. Since the NSC is organizationally situated in the Executive Office of the President, it is less amenable to congressional oversight than other government agencies, which regularly report their activities to the Congress. This more “independent” functioning of the NSC has, at times, led to controversial activities, such as when the NSC assembled and executed the “arms for hostages” operation that led to the Iran-Contra scandal in the Ronald Reagan administration and when it coordinated the development of the “weapons of mass destruction” rationale relied upon to promote the George W. Bush administration’s decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003.
But, perhaps, the NSC has never been subject to more organizational or functional turmoil than in the Donald Trump administration. The NSC under Trump is operating under its fourth National Security Advisor, more than any other president has employed in a single term of office. Changes at the top generally lead to more staff shuffling as well and, as has been widely reported, this administration’s NSC has experienced an unusually high rate of turnover.
These unprecedented levels of personnel change might be less discomfiting if the NSC was seen to be operating with some discernible level of functional coherence, but it is not. According to various media sources, there is no recognizable “process” in the national security policies of this administration other than seeking to implement the largely ad hoc, instinctual, almost entirely spontaneous “gut” reactions of the president. Whether defending Trump’s curious on and off “bromance” with Kim Jong-un, puzzling over his fondness of Vladimir Putin and resistance to condemnation of Russian intelligence and cyber activities (even, as demonstrated in Helsinki, at odds with the findings of his own Intelligence Community), rationalizing the “impulsive” decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, or recounting the shifting theories employed to justify the killing of Qasem Soleimani, nothing evinces a coherent, thoughtful approach to the national security issues confronting the United States.
All of this is contextual prelude to the allegation reported in the New York Times in June 2020 that U.S. intelligence sources had learned that the GRU, the military arm of the Russian intelligence apparatus, was paying Taliban fighters to kill U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan. This disclosure was followed by multiple reports on exactly what the president knew about this allegation and when he was told, and while some aspects of the exact sequence of events remain unsettled, certain facts have been established with a reasonable level of certainty.
Despite Russian denials, the central theme of the intelligence reporting, i.e., that the Russians were paying Taliban militants to kill U.S. troops, has not been credibly disputed, although the reliability of the underlying intelligence has been questioned and continues to be vetted within the Intelligence Community. This process of validation and analysis is not particularly unusual depending upon the sources of the original intelligence and the difficulty of obtaining reliable corroboration. What is unusual is that, regardless of its unconfirmed reliability, no one in the president’s national security apparatus thought it necessary to mention to the president that there was intelligence information that, at minimum, could not be readily discounted indicating that a Russian intelligence service was paying bounties to the Taliban for dead American soldiers.
After initially saying that neither the president nor the vice president had been briefed on the subject, the White House has not refuted the implication that “briefed” means orally advised. Reliable reporting has subsequently indicated that the information was included in the President’s Daily Brief (PDF) as early as February 2020, and the Washington Post reported that the initial intelligence collected by U.S. Special Operations forces based in Afghanistan led to “a restricted high-level White House meeting in late March.”
President Trump is an infrequent, and largely indifferent, reader of the PDB, according to media reporting, despite its role as “traditionally includ[ing] the best assessments that analysts can provide on the issues of the most importance to the president.” So, it is plausible that this bit of intelligence escaped his attention in the PDB. It would not be the first time. Commentators have reported that information about the presence of a new virus threat in China appeared in the PDB “no later than January 1 .” Even the less frequent face-to-face briefings given to the president on national security matters are difficult because Trump is known to prefer information provided by friends to that generated by the U.S. Intelligence Community while often launching into lengthy discourses unrelated to the topic at hand. Given the challenge of insuring that the President absorbs and retains information received in the course of his day, it is curious that neither the president’s National Security Advisor, Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense nor Director of National Intelligence, all of whom almost certainly also receive the PDB, felt it unnecessary to specifically invite the President’s attention to this particular intelligence item regarding Russian bounties for killing U.S. troops, no matter how thinly vetted at the time, is a legitimate query.
Again, the change in the roster of this administration may offer some answers since those posts were previously held by H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, James Mattis, and Daniel Coats. All but Coats were former flag-grade officers with long-time exposure to intelligence product and analysis, while Coats had previous service on the Senate Intelligence Committee. All have now been replaced, sometimes a few times removed, by incumbents Robert O’Brien, Mark Meadows, Mark Esper, and John Ratcliffe, who, whatever their other qualifications, lack a pedigree in intelligence activities.
This dearth of experience in the personnel who Trump has chosen to handle national security policy would be less disconcerting if the president were an old national security policy hand himself. As the New York Times reported recently, when Robert O’Brien, Trump’s current National Security Advisor, convenes meetings at the White House with top national security officials, he sometimes opens by distributing printouts of Trump’s tweets on the latest issue at hand. This leaves the NSC the task of finding ways to justify, rationalize, or implement the president’s “policy” without having had any opportunity to advise him on what that policy should be.
With the issue of Russian bounties paid for killing U.S. troops, this approach to policy-making collided with another bȇte noire of the Trump national security “process:” the recognition that Trump does not react well to reports that he thinks might undermine what he considers his good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The bounty allegations appear to fit within this category and may have led to the decision to request further corroboration without mentioning the information to the president or pointing out its presence in the PDB.
With the publication of the bounty allegations in the New York Times on June 26, 2020, the administration’s immediate reaction was to produce a report that reinforces the administration’s narrative that there were gaps and uncertainties in the information. Within days after the Times’ initial report, newly confirmed Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe had the National Intelligence Council (NIC) produce a “Sense of the [Intelligence] Community” memorandum (SOCM). The SOCM emphasized the gaps and uncertainties in the existing intelligence without refuting the underlying assessment “that Russia appears to have offered bounties to kill U.S. and coalition troops.” The SOCM also reports that the CIA and National Counterterrorism Center have assessed the underlying intelligence with “medium confidence — meaning credibly sourced and plausible but falling short of near certainty.” Notwithstanding the lack of “certainty,” a rarely achieved Holy Grail in the intelligence business, this same intelligence was deemed serious and credible enough to share with other coalition participants whose own troops were threatened by the bounty arrangement and to circulate “more broadly across the intelligence community in a May 4 article in the C.I.A.’s World Intelligence Review, a classified compendium commonly referred to as The Wire.”
The SOCM has generated suspicion in terms of its timing and the purpose to which it has been put. Gregory Treverton, former chairman of the NIC, confirmed that “it is not uncommon for the NIC to produce short-notice, all-source assessments on important topics, especially if agencies’ analyses differ, but he voiced concern that the assessment of the suspected Russian bounty program could be politicized to fit the White House’s characterization of the intelligence,” saying, “I would hope the process still maintains its integrity, but I have real concerns, given the pressures these analysts are under.” Similarly, Matthew Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center noted, “These products are never definitive, ever — there’s always caveats and holes and judgments and qualifications. The White House has portrayed it as not verified, but it’s never verified, so that struck me as misrepresentation. It would be very easy, if you want to take a different spin, to draw those out and amplify the ways it’s inconclusive.”
With the SOCM, the different “spin” takes the form of particular descriptives in a way that looks to confirm White House narrative. Phrases, such as “NSA doesn’t agree,” “There’s no real consensus,” “The intelligence is muddled and unclear,” “The agencies are all over the map,” “There are intelligence gaps that need to be filled before we can trust the conclusions,” all represent characterizations of aspects of intelligence analysis that are not unusual, could be technically true, reflect the mosaic-like composite that often characterizes intelligence analysis but, also, depending on the manner in which they are employed, make intelligence analyses like the SOCM susceptible to political manipulation. Consequently, each of these chosen descriptives might be found in a professionally and honestly produced analytical work while simultaneously satisfying the administration’s desire to portray the existing intelligence as sufficiently inconclusive to forego briefing the president because there was nothing sufficiently “hard” to warrant taking action against the Russians. This rationalizes both the decision to avoid raising the matter with Trump while also catering to his alleged aversion to “bad news” that might affect his self-perceived relationship with Putin.
The Russian bounties story raises concerns on multiple levels regarding national security policy. First, there is the immediate issue of what actions must be taken to respond should the intelligence information regarding this Russian activity ultimately be sufficiently corroborated to warrant action. But, there is also the problem represented by the broader picture of the serious flaws this episode reveals about the structure and approach that this administration uses to raise, analyze, and resolve national security problems. After more than three years in office, it is apparent that these flaws are unlikely to be addressed by any substantive change that restructures the process to produce a more cohesive mechanism for achieving coherent national security policy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
See, e.g., Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, Crippling the Capacity of the National Security Council, Brookings Institution, Jan. 21, 2019. Available at https://brook.gs/2TMEKBo.
 See, e.g., John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, Simon & Schuster (2020) at 8 (“that [Trump] believed he could run the Executive Branch and establish national security policies on instinct”), at 93 (that Trump tweeted about Assad chemical attacks “before consulting his national security team.”), at 118 (“Of course, Trump didn’t help by not being clear about what he wanted, jumping randomly from one question to another, and generally frustrating efforts to have a coherent discussion about the consequences of making one choice rather than another.”), at 144 (“decision making on trade issues under Trump was painful.” They did not follow an orderly path using the NSC’s interagency structure; instead, the issues were discussed in weekly meetings chaired by Trump ‘that more closely resembled college food fights that careful decision making.”), at 188 (weekly intelligence briefings were not useful because “much of the time was spent listening to Trump rather than Trump listening to the briefers.”). See also Patrick Keefe, McMaster and Commander, The New Yorker, April 30, 2018 (“But Trump, as a senior Administration official recently put it, is ‘not a voracious reader.’”) and (multi-page explications of policy and strategy were reduced, first, to a single page; then, because it “was still too much” to a card because, it was explained to staffers, the President is a “ visual person” who wants points expressed “pictorially.”) Available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/30/mcmaster-and-commander?utm_source=onsite-share&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=onsite-share&utm_brand=the-new-yorker. See also, Josh Wingrove, Bolton Says Trump Aids Foes with Disarray on Bounty News, Bloomberg, July 1, 2020 (“What I’m talking about here is not ‘Does the president read lengthy briefing papers?,’ ‘Does he get it via movies?’ and that sort of thing,” Bolton said. “The question for Donald Trump is does he get it at all, and I think he’s uninterested in learning. I think that facts that are inconvenient for him often don’t stick, despite repeated tellings.”). Available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-01/bolton-declines-to-say-if-he-briefed-trump-on-russia-bounties.
 Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt, Nicholas Fandos, Adam Goldman, Trump Got Written Briefing in February on Possible Russian Bounties, Officials Say, The New York Times, June 30, 2020. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/29/us/politics/russian-bounty-trump.html?smid=em-share.See also, Josh Wingrove, Bolton Says Trump Aids Foes With Disarray on Russian Bounty News, Bloomberg News, July 1, 2020. (“What I’m talking about here is not ‘Does the president read lengthy briefing papers?,’ ‘Does he get it via movies?’ and that sort of thing,” Bolton said. “The question for Donald Trump is does he get it at all, and I think he’s uninterested in learning. I think that facts that are inconvenient for him often don’t stick, despite repeated tellings.”).