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NSA Differed From CIA, Others on Russia Bounty Intelligence

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 6/30/2020 Gordon Lubold, Warren P. Strobel
a group of people walking up a hill © Rahmat Gul/Associated Press

WASHINGTON—The National Security Agency strongly dissented from other intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia paid bounties for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, according to people familiar with the matter.

The disclosure of the dissent by the NSA, which specializes in electronic eavesdropping, comes as the White House has played down the revelations, saying that the information wasn’t verified and that intelligence officials didn’t agree on it.

Because of that, President Trump was never personally briefed on the threat, the White House said, although a key lawmaker said the information apparently was included in written intelligence materials prepared for Mr. Trump.

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The people familiar with the dissent by the NSA either declined or were unable to say why the agency differed from others—including the Central Intelligence Agency—about the strength of the intelligence showing operatives with Russia’s GRU intelligence agency paid bounties to the insurgent Taliban movement to kill Americans.

In the nuanced practice of intelligence analysis, which involves piecing together sometimes incomplete and ambiguous bits of data, such disagreements aren’t unusual, and sometimes stem from institutional differences, experts and former officials have said.

The NSA focuses on electronic eavesdropping, mining intercepted phone conversations, texts and emails, and other electronic signals. The CIA’s role is human intelligence, which on battlefields such as Afghanistan often means interrogation of enemy detainees.

The NSA in the past has been more conservative than other U.S. intelligence agencies in its analysis of high-profile intelligence matters involving Russia. A January 2017 intelligence community assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, ordered by then-outgoing President Obama, stated that while the CIA and Federal Bureau of Investigation had “high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin aspired to help Mr. Trump’s electoral chances, the NSA reported only “moderate confidence” of that finding.

The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report in April that concluded the analytic difference between NSA and the other intelligence agencies in that case was “reasonable, transparent, and openly debated among the agencies and analysts, with analysts, managers, and agency heads on both sides of the confidence level reasonably justifying their positions.”

The NSA declined to comment in an email to The Wall Street Journal. The CIA has declined to comment on the issue, aside from a statement late Monday by CIA Director Gina Haspel, in which she decried media leaks and indicated analysis of the threat to U.S. troops is ongoing.

Pentagon officials late Monday said the military was still evaluating intelligence that Russian GRU operatives were engaged in malign activity against the U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. “To date, DOD has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports,” the statement said.

The issue has roiled Washington since Friday, with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers demanding briefings on the issue and information on how President Trump and his national security team have handled it. Republicans lawmakers were briefed by the White House on Monday, and a group of Democrats were briefed Tuesday.

While White House officials said Mr. Trump never received an in-person briefing on the reported threat to U.S. troops, information about the intelligence assessment apparently was included in his written daily intelligence briefing, a Republican lawmaker said.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas) after a White House briefing Monday told NBC News that he thought the intelligence was included in the President’s Daily Brief, often known as the PDB, a collection of highly sensitive intelligence presented to the president each day. “I believe it may have been” in the PDB, he told NBC News Monday.

Mr. McCaul said that intelligence presented to the president generally “has to be credible, actionable intel” and officials were still in the process of vetting the intelligence and “looking at ideas” about how to proceed.

In a separate interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. McCaul said one intelligence agency was “strongly dissenting” with another, but he wouldn’t name the agencies at odds or the issues in question.

Following a White House briefing Tuesday, Rep. Adam Smith (D., Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said White House officials outlined evidence of Russian wrongdoing.

“They did not dispute that there is some intelligence that supports the conclusion,” Mr. Smith said. But they insisted there is other intelligence “that disputes the conclusion,” he said.

“I think there is certainly enough there to pursue it further,” Mr. Smith added. “There is certainly enough there” to factor this into the relationship with Putin and Russia, he said.

Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com and Warren P. Strobel at Warren.Strobel@wsj.com

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