Overnight Defense: Administration says ‘low to moderate confidence’ Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | ‘Low to medium risk’ of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he

Apr 15, 2021
In The News

Overnight Defense: Administration says ‘low to moderate confidence’ Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | ‘Low to medium risk’ of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he

Written by Ellen Mitchell
Published by The Hill

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond.

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THE TOPLINE: The Biden administration said Thursday they could assess “with low to moderate confidence” that Russia was behind bounties placed on U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan in 2019.

“The United States Intelligence Community assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, including through financial incentives and compensation,” a senior administration official said during a phone call with reporters. 

Earlier: The New York Times first reported in June that the intelligence community concluded months earlier that a unit within the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, secretly offered payments to Taliban-linked militants for attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan last year. Several other news outlets later confirmed the report.

The news ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill, largely from Democrats who demanded answers from the Trump administration and blasted then-President Trump for not punishing Russia.

The intelligence was reportedly included in written material given to Trump known as the President’s Daily Brief, but Trump denied he was ever briefed. Dismissing the issue Trump also said in July he never raised the issue in conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Biden’s reasoning: The senior Biden administration official noted Thursday that the “low to moderate confidence” was largely due to “challenging operating environments” but stressed that the attribution “puts a burden on Russia.” 

“The safety and well-being of U.S. military personnel and that of our allies and partners is a matter of the absolute highest U.S. national security interests. Our men and women in uniform have defended our country … promoted our interests and values around the world, and we cannot and will not accept the targeting of our personnel like this,” the official told reporters.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday during a press briefing attributed the level of confidence in the assessment in part to the reliance on detainee reporting and the “challenging operational environment in Afghanistan.”

More sanctions for Russia: The assessment was made the same day the administration announced sanctions and other retaliatory steps against Russia for carrying out the SolarWinds hack, which compromised at least nine federal agencies, and election interference efforts against the United States.

The senior administration official stressed to reporters that the assessment around Afghanistan was not the key reason behind the sanctions but was another Russian action the U.S. was watching closely. 

They also said the Biden administration had no interest in creating an “escalatory cycle with Russia” and was seeking a “stable and predictable relationship going forward.”

‘LOW TO MEDIUM RISK’ OF RUSSIA INVADING UKRAINE SOON, TOP GEN SAYS

The head of U.S. European Command on Thursday said there is “low to medium risk” of a Russian invasion of Ukraine in the next few weeks.

Gen. Tod Wolters said the chances of an invasion, while hinging on a variety of factors, would likely start to diminish beyond the next two weeks based on the current trajectory of Russian forces.

“My sense is, with the trend that I see right now, the likelihood of an occurrence will start to wane,” Wolters told lawmakers during a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

A growing presence: Russia since last month has been amassing forces on its border with Ukraine, alarming U.S. and European officials by placing more troops there than at any time since 2014, when it annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

Moscow’s military posturing has ramped up since fighting resumed between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian soldiers in eastern Ukraine, ending a cease-fire the two groups made last summer. 

‘Of great concern’: Wolters said “a very large” Russian ground force has moved into the vicinity of Crimea, as has a “sizable air force” and a “notable maritime force.”

Though the Russian military movement has plateaued, “it is of great concern and our vigilance is high,” he added.  

INTELLIGENCE LEADERS FACE SHARP QUESTIONS AT HOUSE WORLDWIDE THREATS HEARING

The nation’s top intelligence leaders faced sharper political questions during a House hearing on global security threats, with lawmakers focused on rehashing issues from the Trump era as future threats.

The tone was set early when House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) opened the hearing by severely criticizing committee Democrats for steps taken against former President Trump over the past several years, and claiming intelligence officials had not testified over the past two years due to these actions. 

“The real reason Trump officials didn’t want to participate is that for years the committee’s Democrats hijacked our open hearings to advance their conspiracy theories that the Trump administration was filled with Russian agents who colluded with Putin to hack the 2016 elections,” Nunes said.

Dems push back: Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) stressed by comparison in his opening remarks that it was “important to speak truth to power,” even if “intelligence assessments prove politically inconvenient.”

“The American people will learn about threats to U.S. security, no matter what the circumstances — including when the IC’s views might not comport with a president’s preferences,” Schiff said.

Who was there: Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, along with the leaders of the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency (NSA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), were all present for the hearing. The five witnesses appeared before the Senate Intelligence panel Wednesday.

Heavy pressure: FBI Director Christopher Wray bore the brunt of the questioning, with lawmakers of both parties using the hearing to batter him for the FBI’s past investigation of Trump associates as well as ongoing issues at an agency criticized for its lack of diversity. 

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) pressed him for updates on the FBI’s approach to sexual assault and harassment, while Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) bashed the bureau for its handling of warrants when investigating Trump campaign associate Carter Page.

“You’ve promised the American people you would address these failures, in fact you just recently said, ‘The FBI does the right thing the right way.’ I just wonder when will someone be held accountable for this abuse,” Crawford said. 

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, at multiple times during the hearing pressured Wray to clarify the FBI’s view of antifa and the threat posed by those holding such beliefs. 

Read more about the hearing here.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Heritage Foundation will hold a virtual discussion on “U.S.-Taiwan Partnership in the Pacific Islands,” at  10 a.m. 

Lt. Gen. Jody J. Daniels, chief of Army Reserve and Commanding General, U.S. Army Reserve Command, will speak at a Business Executives for National Security virtual discussion at 11 a.m. 

Gen. Michael X. Garrett, commanding general, U.S. Army Forces Command, will speak to media as part of the George Washington University Project for Media and National Security Defense Writers Group at 11:15 a.m. 

ICYMI

— The Hill: New US sanctions further chill Biden-Putin relations

— The Hill: Senators reintroduce bill to block NATO withdrawal

— The Hill: DOJ asks Supreme Court to decline to hear suit claiming all-male draft is discriminatory

— The Hill: Biden aide: Ability to collect daily intel in Afghanistan ‘will diminish’

— The Hill: Democrats reintroduce bill to block US from using nuclear weapons first

— The Hill: Blinken makes surprise visit to Afghanistan after withdrawal announcement

— The Hill: Opinion: American withdrawal need not return Afghanistan to the Taliban

— The Hill: Opinion: Leaving Afghanistan: Is it victory or defeat?

— The Hill: Opinion: Biden can make history on nuclear arms reductions

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