WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump said on Wednesday (July 1) he was not told about a reported Russian effort to get the Taleban to kill US soldiers because many US intelligence officials doubted its veracity, a stance contradicted by four US and European sources and by its inclusion in a widely read CIA report in May..
"We never heard about it because intelligence never found it to be of that level... This didn't rise to the occasion," he told Fox Business Network.
"The intelligence people... many of them didn't believe it happened at all."
The four US and European government sources, who are familiar with intelligence reporting, said that in recent weeks the United States had acquired fresh reporting backing up the allegations that Russia had encouraged Taleban-affiliated militants to kill US and allied soldiers in Afghanistan.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the latest information caused US government experts to discount the National Security Agency's questioning of the allegations.
One of those sources and a fifth person familiar with the matter said the US intelligence community is confident Russia encouraged the Taleban to kill US troops in Afghanistan but there was internal debate over whether Moscow had actually paid bounties.
A sixth person familiar with the matter said the CIA was sufficiently confident of the intelligence to include it in May in its daily flagship publication, the CIA World Intelligence Review, known informally as "The Wire."
Its inclusion there "undermines the administration's entire claim that it is not finished, it's not verified and it wasn't a fully complete product," said this person, who asked not to be identified further because of the sensitivity of the matter.
White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien told reporters the United States will respond strongly if it is confirmed that Russia paid militants to kill US and allied soldiers in Afghanistan, without providing details.
Trump has been under pressure since a New York Times report on Friday that a Russian military intelligence unit offered such bounties and a later report that he received a written briefing on the matter in February.
O'Brien and other aides tried to quell controversy over what Trump knew and when he knew it, saying that a senior CIA civil servant decided not to brief Trump verbally "because she didn't have confidence in the intelligence."
He declined to say whether Trump got anything in writing.
"These are important allegations that, if they're verified I can guarantee you the president will take strong action. We've been working for several months on options," O'Brien told reporters outside the White House, though he added that Washington may never know the truth of the matter because of media leaks.
After Trump over the weekend said he was not briefed on the matter, the White House said Trump was not "personally" briefed but did not address whether he had received a written report, read it, and why he had not responded more aggressively if so.
The shifting statements have generated controversy among his fellow Republicans as well as Democrats and the suggestion that Trump may have ignored or not known about a threat to US troops could damage him as he seeks re-election on Nov 3.
US and European investigators strongly suspect the unit of the GRU Russian military intelligence agency accused of targeting US soldiers in Afghanistan using Taleban-linked militants is the same unit that was implicated in the poisoning of Russian intelligence defector Sergei Skripal in Britain, according to four sources familiar with intelligence reporting.
O'Brien on Wednesday said Trump has since been briefed on the Russian bounty reports, but declined to provide details.