President Trump was briefed this month with reports that China had offered to pay bounties to fighters in Afghanistan who attacked US soldiers there, but the information has not been corroborated and comes months after Mr. Trump dismissed as a “hoax” a CIA assessment that Russia had paid for such attacks.
It is not known whether intelligence from China shows bonuses were paid or whether attacks on U.S. personnel were even attempted. US intelligence agencies collect huge amounts of information, most of which turns out to be false or misleading.
The information – included in the president’s written briefing on Dec. 17 and relayed verbally by National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien – was reported Wednesday evening by Axios and confirmed by US officials.
It comes at a time when Trump administration officials, including Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, have sought to put more pressure on China, in part in hopes of limiting any plans by the new Biden administration. to ease tensions with Beijing.
Mr Trump, Mr Ratcliffe and other officials have also sought to draw attention to Chinese misconduct in areas where other US officials see Russia as a greater threat, including hacking and the use of disinformation to disrupt US politics.
After the revelation this month that the US government had been subjected to a massive cyber breach that US officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confidently attributed to Russia, Mr Trump angrily threw away doubt this notion and sought to involve Beijing. “Russia, Russia, Russia are the priority song when something is happening”, Mr. Trump written on twitter, accusing the media of avoiding “discussing the possibility that it is China (it is possible!)”.
Axios’ report said on Wednesday that the underlying premium information, about which it has received no further details, would be declassified, although it is not known why or for whom. White House officials did not clarify but did not dispute that the information was not corroborated.
Although tensions between the United States and China escalated considerably during the Trump era, Beijing is not known to provide substantial support to anti-American proxies in combat zones like Afghanistan, and some National security experts were initially skeptical that Beijing would support attacks on Americans. . In contrast, many considered similar reports on Russian premiums to be credible.
If confirmed, and particularly if attributed to political leaders in Beijing, such action by China would constitute a grave provocation that may require a response from President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. after taking office in January.
A Biden transition official declined to say on Wednesday evening whether Mr. Biden, who now receives daily official intelligence briefings, had received the same information as the president.
But the official said the Biden team would seek to find out more about this from the Trump administration and that they stressed the importance of a fully cooperative transition process, including with the Department of Defense, which Mr. Biden accused Monday of “obstruction”.
“At the moment,” Biden said in Wilmington, Del., “We just aren’t getting all the information we need from the outgoing administration in key areas of national security.”
Months before the report involving China, the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies were investigating reports collected this year, and first reported by The New York Times, that Russian military intelligence agents had offered to pay fighters linked to the Taliban in Afghanistan for the murder of American soldiers. The.
The CIA estimated with average confidence that Russia had secretly offered and paid the bounties to a network of Afghan militants and criminals. The National Security Agency placed less confidence in the intelligence. But Mr Pompeo, for his part, has taken the reports seriously enough to issue a stern face-to-face warning this summer to his Russian counterpart.
Mr Trump was also given a written briefing on this intelligence, but he publicly dismissed it as “fake news” and an extension of what he called the “Russia hoax”, including the investigation into the links to his 2016 campaign with the Kremlin. At the same time, the president suggested that subordinates had not done enough to draw his attention to the Russia report.
“If he had reached my desk, I would have done something about it,” Trump said in July. U.S. officials have said the assessment regarding Russia was included in his intelligence brief written in February, but that he rarely reads this document.
In multiple subsequent conversations with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, Mr. Trump did not raise the issue.
Many questions remain about unverified information about China, including when such bonuses were allegedly offered, by whom and to whom. The United States and its coalition partners in Afghanistan are fighting not only the Taliban, but also Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and various other militant and criminal groups.
The reportedly scheduled release of more information comes at a time when Democrats and many career intelligence officials fear that Trump officials like Mr. Ratcliffe have sought to selectively declassify intelligence for political purposes, such as the investigation into Russia and electoral interference.