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US intelligence backs away from report of Russia putting bounties on American troops

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U.S. intelligence officials said on Thursday they have "low to moderate confidence" in last year's damning reports of Russia putting bounties on American troops stationed in Afghanistan.

The New York Times first reported last June that the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, was secretly offering financial compensation to Taliban militants in Afghanistan for attacks on coalition forces. Other major news outlets confirmed the report.

At the time of the report being published, then-President Donald Trump dismissed the story as a " made up fake news media hoax."

Former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany reacted to the report by saying, "The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by fake news tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party. The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself."

The report was referred to during a 2020 presidential debate by then-candidate Joe Biden, who like many Democrats, used the story to paint Trump as being soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin and not caring about American service members.

"I don't understand why this President is unwilling to take on Putin when he's actually paying bounties to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan," Biden said in October.

Tim Kaine (D-Va.) also weaponized the story to slam Trump.

"Trump was cozying up to Putin and inviting him to the G7 all while his administration reportedly knew Russia was trying to kill US troops in Afghanistan and derail peace talks with the Taliban," the former Democratic vice presidential candidate wrote on Twitter.

Former President Barack Obama used the Russia bounty story to attack Trump only days before the election.

"When Russia puts bounties on the heads of our soldiers in Afghanistan, the commander-in-chief can't be MIA," Obama said, taking a shot at Trump.

On Thursday, the U.S. intelligence community backed away from the report that Russia put bounties on the heads of American troops to destabilize the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

"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 told reporters. "But because of the low to moderate confidence element of this, our focus is on sending a clear message to Russia about the steps the United States would take in response to such behavior if it were to continue."

"It's challenging to gather this intelligence and this data," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during the daily briefing. "While there is low-to-moderate assessment in these reports, we felt it was important for our intelligence community to look into it."

"I'm not going to speak to the previous administration, but I will say we had enough concern about these reports and about the targeting of our men and women serving, the men and women who are proudly serving around the world, that we wanted our intelligence community to look into it," Psaki added. "This information really puts the burden on Russian and the Russian government to explain their engagement here. We still feel there are questions to be answered by the Russian government."

"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," a senior Biden administration official said on Thursday. "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."

Russian officials have denied the accusations.

The assessment was delivered on the same day that the Biden administration introduced sanctions against Russia for the SolarWinds cyberattack and alleged interference in the 2020 election. The White House said the sanctions will attempt to deter "Russia's harmful foreign activities."

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