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Westlake Legal Group > Posts tagged "Espionage and Intelligence Services"

New Administration Memo Seeks to Foster Doubts About Suspected Russian Bounties

A memo produced in recent days by the office of the nation’s top intelligence official acknowledged that the C.I.A. and top counterterrorism officials have assessed that Russia appears to have offered bounties to kill American and coalition troops in Afghanistan, but emphasized uncertainties and gaps in evidence, according to three officials.

The memo is said to contain no new information, and both its timing and its stressing of doubts suggested that it was intended to bolster the Trump administration’s attempts to justify its inaction on the months-old assessment, the officials said. Some former national security officials said the account of the memo indicated that politics may have influenced its production.

The National Intelligence Council, which reports to the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, produced the two-and-a-half page document, a so-called sense of the community memorandum. Dated July 1, it appears to have been commissioned after The New York Times reported on June 26 that intelligence officials had assessed months ago that Russia had offered bounties, but the White House had yet to authorize a response.

The memo said that the C.I.A. and the National Counterterrorism Center had assessed with “medium confidence” — meaning credibly sourced and plausible, but falling short of near certainty — that a unit of the Russian military intelligence service, known as the G.R.U., offered the bounties, according to two of the officials briefed on its contents.

But other parts of the intelligence community — including the National Security Agency, which favors electronic surveillance intelligence — said they did not have information to support that conclusion at the same level, therefore expressing lower confidence in the conclusion, according to the two officials. A third official familiar with the memo did not describe the precise confidence levels, but also said the C.I.A.’s was higher than other agencies.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Ratcliffe’s office declined to comment. The officials familiar with the memo described it on the condition of anonymity.

It is not uncommon for the intelligence council to produce short-notice, all-source assessments on important topics, especially if agencies’ analyses differ, said Gregory F. Treverton, the chairman of the council from 2014 to 2017. But he voiced concern that the assessment of the suspected Russian bounty program could be politicized to fit the White House’s characterization of the intelligence about it.

“I would hope the process still maintains its integrity, but I have real concerns, given the pressures these analysts are under,” Mr. Treverton said in a telephone interview.

Matthew G. Olsen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center who also held other national security posts during both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, also said the account of the memo’s contents raised the appearance of potential politicization.

“These products are never definitive, ever — there’s always caveats and holes and judgments and qualifications,” Mr. Olsen said. “The White House has portrayed it as not verified, but it’s never verified, so that struck me as misrepresentation. It would be very easy, if you want to take a different spin, to draw those out and amplify the ways it’s inconclusive.”

Mr. Ratcliffe, formerly a Republican congressman known for his outspoken support for Mr. Trump, was confirmed in late May.

ImageWestlake Legal Group 03dc-intel-03-articleLarge New Administration Memo Seeks to Foster Doubts About Suspected Russian Bounties United States Politics and Government United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Targeted Killings Taliban Russia Ratcliffe, John Lee (1965- ) National Security Agency National Intelligence Council GRU (Russia) Espionage and Intelligence Services Defense and Military Forces central intelligence agency Afghanistan War (2001- ) Afghanistan
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

The memo is said to lay out the intelligence that informed the agencies’ conclusions. It declared that the intelligence community knows that Russian military intelligence officers met with leaders of a Taliban-linked criminal network and that money was transferred from a G.R.U. account to the network. After lower-level members of that network were captured, they told interrogators that the Russians were paying bounties to encourage the killings of coalition troops, including Americans.

But, the two officials who discussed the memo in greater detail said, it stressed that the government lacks direct evidence of what the criminal network leaders and G.R.U. officials said at face-to-face meetings so it cannot say with any greater certainty that Russia specifically offered bounties in return for killings of Western soldiers.

Two suspected leaders of the criminal ring who were believed to have met with the G.R.U. — Rahmatullah Azizi, a onetime drug smuggler who grew wealthy as a middleman for the Russian spies, and a second man named Habib Muradi, according to three officials — fled to Russia after raids this year where several of their underlings were captured.

The memo also emphasized that the National Security Agency did not have surveillance that confirmed what the captured detainees told interrogators about bounties, according to the officials. The agency did intercept data of financial transfers that provide circumstantial support for the detainees’ account, but the agency does not have explicit evidence that the money was bounty payments.

The memo also said that the Defense Intelligence Agency did not have information directly connecting the suspected operation to the Kremlin, officials said. But earlier assessments had also said that it was not clear how far up in the Russian government the bounties were approved. Intelligence officials suspect that a G.R.U. section known as Unit 29155, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe intended to destabilize the West or exact revenge on turncoats, is behind the suspected plot.

The memo was produced as the administration, in response to bipartisan congressional demands, delivered briefings to lawmakers this week. Another person familiar with one of the briefings said that lawmakers were told that the intelligence community had high confidence that Russia was encouraging Taliban attacks on American and coalition forces and that the G.R.U. had officers in Afghanistan with links to the Taliban.

But, the person said, while there was chatter among Afghans about possible bounties for attacks, American officials were less sure when it came to trying to link Russians to the acts of specific Taliban militants or associated criminal units, or showing that the Russians had actually paid for specific attacks. At one point, about half a million dollars in cash was seized in a raid on a compound, raising suspicions, but investigators could not say for sure that it was bounty money.

Credit…Rahmat Gul/Associated Press

The briefers told Congress that it was not clear whether the Russians were behind or paid for one episode that investigators are said to be focused on: the killing of three Marines in an April 2019 bombing outside Bagram Air Base. One official said the new memo said that it cannot be established with certainty that Russian actions led to that attack.

The United States has accused Russia of providing support like small arms to the Taliban for years. After interagency vetting, the intelligence assessment that Russia’s support had escalated into directly encouraging more attacks on Americans and other coalition troops was included in Mr. Trump’s written daily brief in late February, officials have said.

Mr. Trump is known to only rarely read his daily briefing, however. Administration officials have said publicly that he was not “briefed” but remained coy about whether the assessment was in his written brief. In congressional briefings, according to participants, administration officials have stressed that Mr. Trump was not “orally” briefed.

The assessment of the problem also served as the basis of an interagency meeting in late March convened by the National Security Council, at the end of which officials were assigned to come up with a menu of potential responses. The ensuing list started with making a diplomatic complaint to Russia and escalated into sanctions and other punishments, officials have said.

But despite receiving that list months ago, the Trump White House has not authorized action. The administration appeared to have indefinitely sidelined the issue, the officials said, until The Times article last week caused an uproar in Congress, prompting a fresh look at it.

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White House Dismisses Reports of Bounties, but Is Silent on Russia

Westlake Legal Group 01dc-intel-facebookJumbo White House Dismisses Reports of Bounties, but Is Silent on Russia United States Politics and Government United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Targeted Killings Taliban Sanner, Beth Russia O'Brien, Robert C (1952- ) National Security Agency Iran Espionage and Intelligence Services central intelligence agency Afghanistan War (2001- )

First President Trump denied knowing about it. Then he called it a possible “hoax.” Next, the White House attacked the news media. And now an unnamed intelligence official is to blame.

The one thing Mr. Trump and his top officials have not done is to address the substance of intelligence reports that Russia paid bounties to Taliban-affiliated fighters to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, or what they might do in response.

Nor has the White House — amid the denials, qualifications and accusations — publicly discussed what that intelligence could mean for Mr. Trump’s efforts to thaw relations with Russia and court President Vladimir V. Putin despite Moscow’s continued aggression toward the United States and its allies.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump repeated his claim that he was “never briefed” about the intelligence, which his aides called unverified but which many U.S. intelligence officials deemed credible. Officials say it appeared in the president’s daily written intelligence briefing in late February. Writing on Twitter, Mr. Trump called stories about the bounties “a made up Fake News Media Hoax started to slander me & the Republican Party.”

His national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, said on Fox News that Mr. Trump’s C.I.A. briefer, the person who delivers an in-person briefing to him every few days, had not brought it to his attention.

“The president was not briefed, because at the time of these allegations, they were uncorroborated,” Mr. O’Brien said. “And as a result, the president’s career C.I.A. briefer decided not to brief him.”

The administration has not publicly acknowledged that the information was provided to Mr. Trump in his written briefing, and has not responded to questions about whether they were saying he simply chose not to read it.

But it would be unusual, if not unprecedented, for intelligence with grave implications to be withheld from the president on the grounds that it lacked definitive consensus. Former Obama administration officials have said that even the intelligence that formed the basis of the May 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden was inconclusive and disputed among national security officials.

Mr. O’Brien did not name the C.I.A. briefer but said she was “an outstanding officer.” He added, “I certainly support her decision.”

The person who usually handles that job is Beth Sanner, a C.I.A. analyst with three decades of experience. Ms. Sanner is said to have a good relationship with Mr. Trump, but the White House has cited her briefings before when deflecting responsibility for a crisis.

In May, Mr. Trump conceded that he had been warned about the emerging coronavirus in a late January briefing, but said he was told “it was not a big deal.” Intelligence officials have acknowledged that it was Ms. Sanner who provided that briefing and claimed that she underplayed the threat from the virus.

But in that case, there were many other warnings Mr. Trump ignored from both government officials and health experts, as well as former officials speaking publicly and reports in the news media.

Former officials say that unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump often does not read the President’s Daily Brief, the summary prepared for him by the intelligence agencies. And he registers only information relayed to him orally, a fact that administration officials acknowledged when meeting with lawmakers this week.

Even then, officials have said, Mr. Trump is often unfocused and easily distracted during his briefing. Ms. Sanner, who began briefing the president last year, has acquired a reputation for effectively presenting information to Mr. Trump in ways that engage him.

In his interview on Wednesday, Mr. O’Brien repeated White House assertions that intelligence officials lacked “consensus” about the bounties, which was based on intelligence that included intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account.

Mr. O’Brien said that public disclosure of the matter by leakers would make it more difficult to “get to the bottom” of the reports. He added that the C.I.A. had filed a criminal report with the Department of Justice.

Mr. Trump responded vaguely when asked in an interview on Wednesday with the Fox Business Network about how he would respond if Russia were proven to have put bounties on U.S. troops.

“The Russians would hear about it, and anybody else would hear about it that was involved,” he said, insisting that he would always protect the military.

Mr. O’Brien told reporters that the National Security Council had drawn up undisclosed options for a potential response. He was among several senior Trump officials at a White House briefing on Tuesday for House Democrats, which lawmakers complained was hampered by the absence of any intelligence professionals who could walk them through the nuances of the competing strands of intelligence.

“They just wanted to make sure that we knew that the president didn’t know anything,” said Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who attended the meeting. “I cannot recall under Bush, Obama, Clinton, them wanting to come out and say, ‘Look, the president didn’t know anything.’”

Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, did most of the talking in the nearly two-hour session. But Mr. Meadows, a former North Carolina congressman, did not seem to understand the nuances of intelligence and so could not clearly explain some of the more complicated issues that lawmakers raised, according to people briefed on the meeting.

The director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, repeatedly told lawmakers the events in question happened well before he took over his post in late May from the former acting director, Richard Grenell.

The lawmakers, including Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, a former C.I.A. officer, pushed back and asked why, after the assessment was included in the President’s Daily Brief in late February, Mr. Trump was not given a heads-up before any of the five or six phone calls he subsequently had with Mr. Putin, including one call in which Mr. Trump invited the Russian leader to a Group of 7 meeting.

Sticking to talking points, White House officials acknowledged that the C.I.A. had concluded that a Russian bounty plot existed, but did not explain in detail the supporting evidence behind the assessment.

That evidence, The Times has reported, included detainee interrogations, the recovery of about $500,000 from a Taliban-related target and intercepts of electronic communications showing financial transfers between the Russian military intelligence unit and Afghan intermediaries.

Instead, the White House officials focused on skepticism from the National Security Agency, which assessed that it did not have information to corroborate the C.I.A.’s conclusion.

But the House Democrats were not briefed in detail on the intercepts of the electronic communications showing the financial transfers, which other U.S. officials say have reconciled many of the differences between the C.I.A. and National Security Agency assessments. They received no explanation for why the material was not addressed.

A member of Congress familiar with the intelligence file said that it did not address when or how Mr. Trump was briefed on the material. Nor did it detail any connection to specific U.S. or coalition deaths in Afghanistan. The lawmaker said that gaps remained in the intelligence community’s understanding of the overall program, including its precise motive, which officials have speculated could range from revenge to forcing the United States out of Afghanistan more quickly.

At the White House briefings, there was some discussion about whether Iran might have paid bounties to the Haqqani network to target U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Those reports appear to have surfaced after the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who led the powerful Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in a U.S. drone strike in early January at Baghdad’s international airport. Iran had vowed to avenge General Suleimani’s death.

While many Republicans rushed to defend Mr. Trump’s handling of the matter, some called for more focus on Russia’s threat to American interests.

“I’m interested in hearing the administration speak clearly about their plans that aren’t just hypothetical sanctions sometime out in the future,” said Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska.

Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, said a briefing for Senate Armed Services Committee members had little value because the Pentagon had sent officials who lacked detailed knowledge. For example, she said, the briefers had not even seen all of the documents in the intelligence file, which senators had separately been able to read, and did not know whether any casualties in Afghanistan were now being studied as possible bounty killings.

The Times has reported that investigators are said to be focused on at least two attacks on American troops in Afghanistan, including one bombing and a firefight in April 2019 near Bagram Air Base that killed three Marines.

“It really didn’t answer the questions we had,” Ms. Duckworth said.

With lawmakers in both parties asking for more information, Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, and Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, the head of the National Security Agency, along with Mr. Ratcliffe, were scheduled to deliver on Thursday the highest-level briefing yet about the American intelligence to a select group of bipartisan House and Senate leaders, known as the Gang of Eight.

Asked on Wednesday about the Russian bounties, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said U.S. intelligence officials “handled this incredibly well” to minimize risk to American troops in Afghanistan. He also said that it would be “nothing new” if Russia undermined American in Afghanistan, noting that the Taliban had long received funding from foreign nations, including Russia and Iran.

Mr. Pompeo refused to directly address whether Mr. Trump should have been told about intelligence indicating the Russian bounty offers.

During a visit to Arizona on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence demurred when asked about the matter. ”I was never briefed about that matter,” he said, “and I’m not going to discuss classified materials.”

Nicholas Fandos, Adam Goldman, Lara Jakes and Charlie Savage contributed reporting.

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Data on Financial Transfers Bolstered Suspicions That Russia Offered Bounties

Westlake Legal Group data-on-financial-transfers-bolstered-suspicions-that-russia-offered-bounties Data on Financial Transfers Bolstered Suspicions That Russia Offered Bounties United States Politics and Government United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Terrorism Taliban Russia Ratcliffe, John Lee (1965- ) National Security Council McEnany, Kayleigh GRU (Russia) Espionage and Intelligence Services Defense Department Afghanistan War (2001- ) Afghanistan
Westlake Legal Group 30dc-intel-facebookJumbo Data on Financial Transfers Bolstered Suspicions That Russia Offered Bounties United States Politics and Government United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Terrorism Taliban Russia Ratcliffe, John Lee (1965- ) National Security Council McEnany, Kayleigh GRU (Russia) Espionage and Intelligence Services Defense Department Afghanistan War (2001- ) Afghanistan

American officials intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account, which was among the evidence that supported their conclusion that Russia covertly offered bounties for killing U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, according to three officials familiar with the intelligence.

Though the United States has accused Russia of providing general support to the Taliban before, analysts concluded from other intelligence that the transfers were most likely part of a bounty program that detainees described during interrogations. Investigators also identified by name numerous Afghans in a network linked to the suspected Russian operation, the officials said — including, two of them added, a man believed to have served as an intermediary for distributing some of the funds and who is now thought to be in Russia.

The intercepts bolstered the findings gleaned from the interrogations, helping reduce an earlier disagreement among intelligence analysts and agencies over the reliability of the detainees. The disclosures further undercut White House officials’ claim that the intelligence was too uncertain to brief President Trump. In fact, the information was provided to him in his daily written brief in late February, two officials have said.

Afghan officials this week described a sequence of events that dovetails with the account of the intelligence. They said that several businessmen who transfer money through the informal “hawala” system were arrested in Afghanistan over the past six months and are suspected of being part of a ring of middlemen who operated between the Russian intelligence agency, known as the G.R.U., and Taliban-linked militants. The businessmen were arrested in what the officials described as sweeping raids in the north of Afghanistan, as well as in Kabul.

A half-million dollars was seized from the home of one of the men, added a provincial official. The New York Times had previously reported that the recovery of an unusually large amount of cash in a raid was an early piece in the puzzle that investigators put together.

The three American officials who described and confirmed details about the basis for the intelligence assessment spoke on condition of anonymity amid swelling turmoil over the Trump administration’s failure to authorize any response to Russia’s suspected proxy targeting of American troops and downplaying of the issue after it came to light four days ago.

White House and National Security Council officials declined to comment, as did the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe. They pointed to statements late Monday from Mr. Ratcliffe; the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien; and the Pentagon’s top spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman. All of them said that recent news reports about Afghanistan remained unsubstantiated.

On Monday, the administration invited several House Republicans to the White House to discuss the intelligence. The briefing was mostly carried out by three Trump administration officials: Mr. Ratcliffe, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and Mr. O’Brien. Until recently, both Mr. Meadows and Mr. Ratcliffe were Republican congressmen known for being outspoken supporters of Mr. Trump.

That briefing focused on intelligence information that supported the conclusion that Russia was running a covert bounty operation and other information that did not support it, according to two people familiar with the meeting. For example, the briefing focused in part on the interrogated detainees’ accounts and the earlier analysts’ disagreement over it.

Both people said the intent of the briefing seemed to be to make the point that the intelligence on the suspected Russian bounty plot was not clear cut. For example, one of the people said, the White House also cited some interrogations by Afghan intelligence officials of other detainees, downplaying their credibility by describing them as low-level.

The administration officials did not mention anything in the House Republican briefing about intercepted data tracking financial transfers, both of the people familiar with it said.

Democrats and Senate Republicans were also separately briefed at the White House on Tuesday morning. Democrats emerged saying that the issue was clearly not, as Mr. Trump has suggested, a “hoax.” They demanded to hear directly from intelligence officials, rather than from Mr. Trump’s political appointees, but conceded they had not secured a commitment for such a briefing.

Based on the intelligence they saw, the lawmakers said they were deeply troubled by Mr. Trump’s insistence he did not know about the plot and his subsequent obfuscation when it became public.

“I find it inexplicable in light of these very public allegations that the president hasn’t come before the country and assured the American people that he will get to the bottom of whether Russia is putting bounties on American troops and that he will do everything in his power to make sure that we protect American troops,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

He added: “I do not understand for a moment why the president is not saying this to the American people right now and is relying on ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I haven’t heard,’ ‘I haven’t been briefed.’ That is just not excusable.”

Mr. Ratcliffe was scheduled to go to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet privately with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, an official familiar with the planning said.

The Times reported last week that intelligence officials believed that a unit of the G.R.U. had offered and paid bounties for killing American troops and other coalition forces and that the White House had not authorized a response after the National Security Council convened an interagency meeting about the problem in late March.

Investigators are said to be focused on at least two deadly attacks on American soldiers in Afghanistan. One is an April 2019 bombing outside Bagram Air Base that killed three Marines: Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, of Newark, Del.; Cpl. Robert A. Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, N.Y.; and Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines, 31, of York, Pa.

On Monday, Felicia Arculeo, the mother of Corporal Hendriks, told CNBC that she was upset to learn from news reports of the suspicions that her son’s death arose from a Russian bounty operation. She said she wanted an investigation, adding that “the parties who are responsible should be held accountable, if that’s even possible.”

Officials did not say which other attack is under scrutiny.

In claiming that the information was not provided to him, Mr. Trump has also dismissed the intelligence assessment as “so-called” and claimed he was told that it was “not credible.” The White House subsequently issued statements in the names of several subordinates denying that he had been briefed.

The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, reiterated that claim on Monday and said that the information had not been elevated to Mr. Trump because there was a dissenting view about it within the intelligence community.

But she and other administration officials demurred when pressed to say whether their denials encompassed the president’s daily written briefing, a compendium of the most significant intelligence and analysis that the intelligence community writes for presidents to read. Mr. Trump is known to often neglect reading his written briefings.

Intelligence about the suspected Russian plot was included in Mr. Trump’s written President’s Daily Brief in late February, according to two officials, contrasting Mr. Trump’s claim on Sunday that he was never “briefed or told” about the matter.

The information was also considered solid enough to be distributed to the broader intelligence community in a May 4 article in the C.I.A.’s World Intelligence Review, commonly called The Wire, according to several officials.

A spokesman for the Taliban has also denied that it accepted Russian-paid bounties to carry out attacks on Americans and other coalition soldiers, saying the group needed no such encouragement for its operations. But one American official said the focus has been on criminals closely associated with the Taliban.

In a raid in Kunduz City in the north about six months ago, 13 people were arrested in a joint operation by American forces and the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, according to Safiullah Amiry, the deputy provincial council chief there. Two of the main targets of the raid had already fled — one to Tajikistan and one to Russia, Mr. Amiry said — but it was in the Kabul home of one of them where security forces found a half-million dollars. He said the Afghan intelligence agency had told him the raids were related to Russian money being dispersed to militants.

Two former Afghan officials said Monday that members of local criminal networks have carried out attacks for the Taliban in the past — not because they share the Taliban’s ideology or goals, but in exchange for money.

In Parwan Province, where Bagram Airfield is, the Taliban are known to have hired local criminals as freelancers, said Gen. Zaman Mamozai, the former police chief of the province. He said the Taliban’s commanders are based in two districts of the province, Seyagird and Shinwari, and that from there they coordinate a network that commissions criminals to carry out attacks.

And Haseeba Efat, a former member of Parwan’s provincial council, also said the Taliban have hired freelancers in Bagram district — including one of his own distant relatives in one case.

“They agree with these criminals that they won’t have monthly salary, but they will get paid for the work they do when the Taliban need them,” Mr. Efat said.

Twenty American service members were killed in combat-related operations in Afghanistan last year, the most since 2014.

Fahim Abed, Najim Rahim, Helene Cooper and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.

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Trump Got Written Briefing in February on Possible Russian Bounties, Officials Say

Westlake Legal Group trump-got-written-briefing-in-february-on-possible-russian-bounties-officials-say Trump Got Written Briefing in February on Possible Russian Bounties, Officials Say United States Politics and Government United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Terrorism Taliban Senate Russia Pelosi, Nancy Office of the Director of National Intelligence National Security Council National Intelligence Estimates House of Representatives Espionage and Intelligence Services central intelligence agency Afghanistan War (2001- ) Afghanistan
Westlake Legal Group 29dc-intel2-facebookJumbo Trump Got Written Briefing in February on Possible Russian Bounties, Officials Say United States Politics and Government United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Terrorism Taliban Senate Russia Pelosi, Nancy Office of the Director of National Intelligence National Security Council National Intelligence Estimates House of Representatives Espionage and Intelligence Services central intelligence agency Afghanistan War (2001- ) Afghanistan

American officials provided a written briefing in late February to President Trump laying out their conclusion that a Russian military intelligence unit offered and paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, two officials familiar with the matter said.

The investigation into the suspected Russian covert operation to incentivize such killings has focused in part on an April 2019 car bombing that killed three Marines as one such potential attack, according to multiple officials familiar with the matter.

The new information emerged as the White House tried on Monday to play down the intelligence assessment that Russia sought to encourage and reward killings — including reiterating a claim that Mr. Trump was never briefed about the matter and portraying the conclusion as disputed and dubious.

But that stance clashed with the disclosure by two officials that the intelligence was included months ago in Mr. Trump’s President’s Daily Brief document — a compilation of the government’s latest secrets and best insights about foreign policy and national security that is prepared for him to read. One of the officials said the item appeared in Mr. Trump’s brief in late February; the other cited Feb. 27, specifically.

Moreover, a description of the intelligence assessment that the Russian unit had carried out the bounties plot was also seen as serious and solid enough to disseminate more broadly across the intelligence community in a May 4 article in the C.I.A.’s World Intelligence Review, a classified compendium commonly referred to as The Wire, two officials said.

A National Security Council spokesman declined to comment on any connection between the Marines’ deaths and the suspected Russian plot. The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, did not answer when pressed by reporters on Monday whether the intelligence was included in the written President’s Daily Brief, and the security council spokesman pointed to her comments when asked later about the February written briefing.

Late Monday, John Ratcliffe, the recently confirmed director of national intelligence, issued a statement warning that leaks about the matter were a crime.

“We are still investigating the alleged intelligence referenced in recent media reporting, and we will brief the president and congressional leaders at the appropriate time,” he said. “This is the analytic process working the way it should. Unfortunately, unauthorized disclosures now jeopardize our ability to ever find out the full story with respect to these allegations.”

The disclosures came amid a growing furor in Washington over the revelations in recent days that the Trump administration had known for months about the intelligence conclusion but the White House had authorized no response to Russia.

Top Democrats in the House and Senate demanded all members of Congress be briefed, and the White House summoned a small group of House Republicans friendly to the president to begin explaining its position.

The lawmakers emerged saying that they were told the administration was reviewing reporting about the suspected Russian plot to assess its credibility, and that the underlying intelligence was conflicting, echoing comments from Ms. McEnany that the information in the assessment had not been “verified” because, she said without detail, there were “dissenting opinions” among analysts or agencies.

“There was not a consensus among the intelligence community,” Ms. McEnany said. “And, in fact, there were dissenting opinions within the intelligence community, and it would not be elevated to the president until it was verified.”

But in denying that Mr. Trump was briefed, administration officials have been coy about how it is defining that concept and whether it includes both oral briefings and the President’s Daily Brief. “He was not personally briefed on the matter,” Ms. McEnany told reporters when asked specifically about the written briefing. “That is all I can share with you today.”

Mr. Trump is said to often neglect reading that document, preferring instead to receive an oral briefing summarizing highlights every few days. Even in those face-to-face meetings, he is particularly difficult to brief on national security matters. He often relies instead on conservative media and friends for information, current and former intelligence officials have said.

American intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan began raising alarms as early as January, and the National Security Council convened an interagency meeting to discuss the problem and what to do about it in late March, The Times has previously reported. But despite being presented with options, including a diplomatic protest and sanctions, the White House authorized no response.

The administration’s explanations on Monday, in public and in private, appeared to be an attempt to placate lawmakers, particularly Mr. Trump’s fellow Republicans, alarmed by news reports in recent days revealing the existence of the intelligence assessment and Mr. Trump’s insistence he had not been warned of the suspected Russian plot.

The assessments pointing to a Russian scheme to offer bounties to Taliban-linked militants and criminals were based on information collected in raids and interrogations on the ground in Afghanistan, where military American commanders came to believe Russia was behind the plot, as well as more sensitive and unspecified intelligence that came in over time, an American official said.

Officials said there was disagreement among intelligence officials about the strength of the evidence about the suspected Russian plot and the evidence linking the attack on the Marines to the suspected Russian plot, but they did not detail those disputes.

Notably, the National Security Agency, which specializes in hacking and electronic surveillance, has been more skeptical about interrogations and other human intelligence, officials said.

Typically, the president is formally briefed when the information has been vetted and seen as sufficiently credible and important by the intelligence professionals. Such information would most likely be included in the President’s Daily Brief.

Former officials said that in previous administrations, accusations of such profound importance — even if the evidence was not fully established — were conveyed to the president. “We had two threshold questions: ‘Does the president need to know this’ and ‘why does he need to know it now,’” said Robert Cardillo, a former senior intelligence official who briefed President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2014.

David Priess, a former C.I.A. daily intelligence briefer and the author of “The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents,” said: “Many intelligence judgments in history have not had the consensus of every analyst who worked on it. That’s the nature of intelligence. It’s inherently dealing with uncertainty.”

Both Mr. Cardillo and Mr. Priess said previous presidents received assessments on issues of potentially vital importance even if they had dissents from some analysts or agencies. The dissents, they said, were highlighted for the president to help them understand uncertainties and the analytic process.

Lawmakers demanded to see the underlying material for themselves.

“This is a time to focus on the two things Congress should be asking and looking at: No. 1 Who knew what, when, and did the commander in chief know? And if not, how the hell not?” said Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, each requested that all lawmakers be briefed on the matter and for C.I.A. and other intelligence officials to explain how Mr. Trump was informed of intelligence collected about the plot.

The White House began explaining its position directly to lawmakers in a carefully controlled setting. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff; John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence; and Robert C. O’Brien, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, briefed a handful of invited House Republicans. A group of House Democrats was scheduled to go to the White House on Tuesday morning to receive a similar briefing.

There was no indication after the session with Republicans whether they had been told that the information was included in Mr. Trump’s written briefing four months ago. But afterward, two of the Republicans — Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Mac Thornberry of Texas — said that they “remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted U.S. forces” and would need additional briefings.

“It has been clear for some time that Russia does not wish us well in Afghanistan,” they said in a joint statement. “We believe it is important to vigorously pursue any information related to Russia or any other country targeting our forces.”

Other Republicans who attended the briefing were more sanguine. In an interview, Representative Chris Stewart of Utah said that he saw nothing unusual about the purported decision not to orally inform Mr. Trump, particularly when the situation did not require the president to take immediate action.

“It just didn’t reach the level of credibility to bring it to the president’s attention,” he said, adding that military and intelligence agencies should continue to scrutinize Russia’s activities.

.

The Associated Press first reported that the intelligence community was examining the deaths of the three Marine reservists: Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, of Newark, Del.; Cpl. Robert A. Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, N.Y.; and Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines, 31, of York, Pa.

They were killed when a vehicle laden with explosives hit their truck, wounding an Afghan contractor as well. The huge blast set fire to the truck, engulfing those inside in flames, while their fellow Marines tried to extricate them, a defense official said. A brief firefight ensued.

Gen. Zaman Mamozai, the former police chief of Parwan Province, where Bagram Airfield is, said that the Taliban there hire freelancers from local criminal networks, often blurring the lines of who carried out what attacks. He said the Taliban’s commanders were only based in two districts of the province, Seyagird and Shinwari, and from there they coordinate a more extensive network that largely commissions the services of criminals.

The Taliban have denied involvement. And a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Dmitry Peskov, told NBC News on Monday that reports of the Russian scheme were incorrect. He said that “none of the American representatives have ever raised this question with their Russian counterparts through government or diplomatic channels.”

The Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, declined to comment on any connection between the Marines’ deaths and the suspected Russian plot. Mr. Hoffman also declined to say whether or when Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper was briefed on the intelligence assessment and whether the deaths of American troops in Afghanistan resulted from the Russian bounties. Col. DeDe Halfhill, a spokeswoman for Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also declined to comment on the same questions.

Reporting was contributed by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Fahim Abed, Annie Karni and Emily Cochrane.

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Spies and Commandos Warned Months Ago of Russian Bounties on U.S. Troops

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Westlake Legal Group 28dc-intel-pix-facebookJumbo Spies and Commandos Warned Months Ago of Russian Bounties on U.S. Troops United States Special Operations Command United States Politics and Government United States International Relations United States Defense and Military Forces Trump, Donald J Taliban Russia National Security Council Espionage and Intelligence Services Defense Department Classified Information and State Secrets central intelligence agency Afghanistan War (2001- ) Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — United States intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan, according to officials briefed on the matter. They believed at least one U.S. troop death was the result of the bounties, two of the officials said.

The crucial information that led the spies and commandos to focus on the bounties included the recovery of a large amount of American cash from a raid on a Taliban outpost that prompted suspicions. Interrogations of captured militants and criminals played a central role in making the intelligence community confident in its assessment that the Russians had offered and paid bounties in 2019, another official has said.

Armed with this information, military and intelligence officials have been reviewing American and other coalition combat casualties over the past 18 months to determine whether any were victims of the plot. Four Americans were killed in combat in early 2020, but the Taliban have not attacked American positions since a February agreement to end the long-running war in Afghanistan.

The details added to the picture of the classified intelligence assessment, which The New York Times reported Friday has been under discussion inside the Trump administration since at least March, and emerged as the White House confronted a growing chorus of criticism on Sunday over its apparent failure to authorize a response to Russia.

Mr. Trump defended himself by denying the Times report that he had been briefed on the intelligence, expanding on a similar White House rebuttal a day earlier. But leading congressional Democrats and some Republicans demanded a response to Russia that, according to officials, the administration has yet to authorize.

The president “needs to immediately expose and handle this, and stop Russia’s shadow war,” Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on Twitter.

Appearing on the ABC program “This Week,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she had not been briefed on the intelligence assessment and had asked for an immediate report to Congress. She accused Mr. Trump of wanting “to ignore” any charges against Russia.

“Russia has never gotten over the humiliation they suffered in Afghanistan, and now they are taking it out on us, our troops,” she said of the Soviet Union’s bloody war there in the 1980s. “This is totally outrageous. You would think that the minute the president heard of it, he would want to know more instead of denying that he knew anything.”

Spokespeople for the C.I.A., the director of national intelligence and the Pentagon declined to comment on the new findings. A National Security Council spokesman, John L. Ullyot, said in a statement on Sunday night, “The veracity of the underlying allegations continues to be evaluated.”

Mr. Trump said Sunday night on Twitter that “Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP.” One senior administration official offered a similar explanation, saying that Mr. Trump was not briefed because the intelligence agencies had come to no consensus on the findings.

But another official said there was broad agreement that the intelligence assessment was accurate, with some complexities because different aspects of the intelligence — including interrogations and surveillance data — resulted in some differences among agencies in how much confidence to put in each type.

Though the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, claimed on Saturday that Mr. Trump had not been briefed about the intelligence report, one American official had told The Times that the report was briefed to the highest levels of the White House. Another said it was included in the President’s Daily Brief, a compendium of foreign policy and national security intelligence compiled for Mr. Trump to read.

Ms. McEnany did not challenge The Times’s reporting on the existence of the intelligence assessment, a National Security Council interagency meeting about it in late March and the White House’s inaction. Multiple other news organizations also subsequently reported on the assessment, and The Washington Post first reported on Sunday that the bounties were believed to have resulted in the death of at least one American service member.

The officials briefed on the matter said that the assessment had been treated as a closely held secret but that the administration expanded briefings about it over the last week — including sharing information about it with the British government, whose forces were among those said to have been targeted.

Republicans in Congress demanded more information from the Trump administration about what happened and how the White House planned to respond.

Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, said in a Twitter post on Sunday: “If reporting about Russian bounties on U.S. forces is true, the White House must explain: 1. Why weren’t the president or vice president briefed? Was the info in the PDB? 2. Who did know and when? 3. What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?”

Multiple Republicans retweeted Ms. Cheney’s post. Representative Daniel Crenshaw, Republican of Texas and a former member of the Navy SEALs, amplified her message, tweeting, “We need answers.”

In a statement in response to questions, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said he had long warned about Russia’s work to undermine American interests in the Middle East and southwest Asia and noted that he wrote an amendment last year rebuking Mr. Trump’s withdrawal of forces from Syria and Afghanistan.

“The United States needs to prioritize defense resources, maintain a sufficient regional military presence and continue to impose serious consequences on those who threaten us and our allies — like our strikes in Syria and Afghanistan against ISIS, the Taliban and Russian mercenary forces that threatened our partners,” Mr. McConnell said.

Aides for other top Republicans either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday, including Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the top House Republican; Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee; and Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In addition to saying he was never “briefed or told” about the intelligence report — a formulation that went beyond the White House denial of any formal briefing — Mr. Trump also cast doubt on the assessment’s credibility, which statements from his subordinates had not.

Specifically, he described the intelligence report as being about “so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians”; the report described bounties paid to Taliban militants by Russian military intelligence officers, not direct attacks. Mr. Trump also suggested that the developments could be a “hoax” and questioned whether The Times’s sources — government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity — existed.

Mr. Trump then pivoted to attack former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who criticized the president on Saturday for failing to punish Russia for offering bounties to the Taliban, as well as Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, who is the target of unsubstantiated claims that he helped a Ukrainian energy firm curry favor with the Obama administration when his father was vice president.

“Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than the Trump Administration,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “With Corrupt Joe Biden & Obama, Russia had a field day, taking over important parts of Ukraine — Where’s Hunter?”

American officials said the Russian plot to pay bounties to Taliban fighters came into focus over the past several months after intelligence analysts and Special Operations forces put together key pieces of evidence.

One official said the seizure of a large amount of American cash at one Taliban site got “everybody’s attention” in Afghanistan. It was not clear when the money was recovered.

Two officials said the information about the bounty hunting was “well known” among the intelligence community in Afghanistan, including the C.I.A.’s chief of station and other top officials there, like the military commandos hunting the Taliban. The information was distributed in intelligence reports and highlighted in some of them.

The assessment was compiled and sent up the chain of command to senior military and intelligence officials, eventually landing at the highest levels of the White House. The Security Council meeting in March came at a delicate time, as the coronavirus pandemic was becoming a crisis and prompting shutdowns around the country.

A former American official said the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, and the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, would have been involved in any decision to brief Mr. Trump on Russia’s activities, as would have the intelligence analyst who briefs the president.. The director of the C.I.A., Gina Haspel, might have also weighed in, the former official said.

Ms. McEnany cited those three senior officials in her statement saying the president had not been briefed.

National security officials have tracked Russia’s relationship with the Taliban for years and determined that Moscow has provided financial and material support to senior and regional Taliban leaders.

While Russia has at times cooperated with the United States and appeared interested in Afghan stability, it often seems to work at crosscurrents with its own national interest if the result is damage to American national interests, said a former senior Trump White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security assessments.

Revenge is also a factor in Russia’s support for the Taliban, the official said. Russia has been keen to even the scales after a bloody confrontation in 2018 in Syria, when a massive U.S. counterattack killed hundreds of Syrian forces along with Russian mercenaries nominally supported by the Kremlin.

“They are keeping a score sheet, and they want to punish us for that incident,” the official said.

Both Russia and the Taliban have denied the American intelligence assessment.

Ms. Pelosi said that if the president had not, in fact, been briefed, then the country should be concerned that his administration was afraid to share with him information regarding Russia.

Ms. Pelosi said that the episode underscored Mr. Trump’s accommodating stance toward Russia and that with him, “all roads lead to Putin.”

“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score, denies being briefed,” she said. “Whether he is or not, his administration knows, and some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan have been briefed and accept this report.”

John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, said on “This Week” that he was not aware of the intelligence assessment, but he questioned Mr. Trump’s response on Twitter.

“What would motivate the president to do that, because it looks bad if Russians are paying to kill Americans and we’re not doing anything about it?” Mr. Bolton said. “The presidential reaction is to say: ‘It’s not my responsibility. Nobody told me about it.’ And therefore to duck any complaints that he hasn’t acted effectively.”

Mr. Bolton said this summed up Mr. Trump’s decision-making on national security issues. “It’s just unconnected to the reality he’s dealing with.”

Reporting was contributed by Julian E. Barnes, Charlie Savage, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Michael Schwirtz and Michael D. Shear.

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For Spy Agencies, Briefing Trump Is a Test of Holding His Attention

Mr. Trump has insisted that the intelligence agencies gave him inadequate warnings about the threat of the virus, describing it as “not a big deal.” Intelligence officials have publicly backed him, acknowledging that Beth Sanner, the analyst who regularly briefs the president, underplayed the dangers when she first mentioned the virus to him on Jan. 23.

But in blaming Ms. Sanner, a C.I.A. analyst with three decades of experience, Mr. Trump ignored a host of warnings he received around that time from higher-ranking officials, epidemiologists, scientists, biodefense officials, other national security aides and the news media about the virus’s growing threat. Mr. Trump’s own health secretary had alerted him five days earlier to the potential seriousness of the virus.

By the time of the Jan. 23 intelligence briefing, many government officials were already alarmed by the signs of a crisis in China, where the virus first broke out, and of a world on the brink of disaster. Within days, other national security warnings prompted the Trump administration to restrict travel from China. But the United States lost its chance to more effectively mitigate the coronavirus in the following weeks when Mr. Trump balked at further measures that might have slowed its spread.

Mr. Trump has not mentioned Ms. Sanner by name when faulting her Jan. 23 briefing. But by focusing on a single briefing, some former officials said, his criticism seemed both personal and misplaced.

“It’s hard for me to imagine her saying something like ‘not so deadly,’” said Greg Treverton, a former National Intelligence Council chairman who worked with Ms. Sanner. “But it is conceivable that is what Trump heard and it wasn’t exactly said.”

Mr. Trump, who has mounted a yearslong attack on the intelligence agencies, is particularly difficult to brief on critical national security matters, according to interviews with 10 current and former intelligence officials familiar with his intelligence briefings.

The president veers off on tangents and getting him back on topic is difficult, they said. He has a short attention span and rarely, if ever, reads intelligence reports, relying instead on conservative media and his friends for information. He is unashamed to interrupt intelligence officers and riff based on tips or gossip he hears from the former casino magnate Steve Wynn, the retired golfer Gary Player or Christopher Ruddy, the conservative media executive.

Mr. Trump rarely absorbs information that he disagrees with or that runs counter to his worldview, the officials said. Briefing him has been so great a challenge compared with his predecessors that the intelligence agencies have hired outside consultants to study how better to present information to him.

Working to keep Mr. Trump’s interest exhausted and burned out his first briefer, Ted Gistaro, two former officials said. Mr. Gistaro did not always know what to expect and would sometimes have to brief an erratic and angry president upset over news reports, the officials said.

Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, said that the idea that Mr. Trump was difficult in intelligence briefings was “flat wrong.” “When you are there, you see a president questioning the assumptions and using the opportunity to broaden the discussion to include real-world perspectives,” Mr. Grenell said.

White House officials disputed the characterization of Mr. Trump as inattentive. “The president is laser-focused on the issues at hand and asks probing questions throughout the briefings — it reminds me of appearing before a well-prepared appellate judge and defending the case,” Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, said in response to a request for comment.

Mr. Trump’s demeanor is hardly judicial, former officials said, but they acknowledged he occasionally asks good questions.

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_171071223_02557d25-2b8a-4fef-92ad-56cb1f5f253a-articleLarge For Spy Agencies, Briefing Trump Is a Test of Holding His Attention United States Politics and Government Trump, Donald J Sanner, Beth Presidents and Presidency (US) Office of the Director of National Intelligence Espionage and Intelligence Services Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Classified Information and State Secrets central intelligence agency
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

An official with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to make Ms. Sanner available for an interview, citing the sensitive nature of her work.

Mr. Trump has long harbored a suspicion of the intelligence agencies, viewing them as part of the so-called deep state intent on undermining his victory in 2016 by revealing that Russia developed a preference for his campaign as it interfered in the election. His distrust has persisted; he publicly belittled his intelligence chiefs last year after a congressional hearing where they offered assessments at odds with the White House, directing them to “go back to school.”

Other presidents have had, at times, contentious relationships with their intelligence briefers. But unlike George W. Bush, who questioned assumptions underlying the analysis, or Barack Obama, who cited analysis from deep in his written briefing, Mr. Trump does not appear to read the document or to otherwise prepare beyond bringing in information he picked up from personal sources.

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“How do you know?” is Mr. Trump’s common refrain during his 30- to 50-minute briefings two or three times a week. He counters with his own statistics on issues where he has strong views, like trade or NATO. Directly challenging him, even when his numbers are wrong, appears to erode Mr. Trump’s trust, according to former officials, and ultimately he stops listening.

H.R. McMaster, the former national security adviser, would sometimes interject during intelligence briefings to correct Mr. Trump, but the president would ignore him. The corrections contributed to the president’s growing irritation with Mr. McMaster, according to people familiar with the briefings. Mr. McMaster, who was replaced in 2018 after 13 months in the post, declined to comment.

Think of Mr. Trump as a performer who is always on, even in the confines of a classified briefing, Joseph Maguire, the former acting director of national intelligence, has advised other officials. Mr. Maguire has told briefers they need to know their audience and understand that Mr. Trump honed his style on reality television, said a former senior intelligence official. Mr. Maguire declined to comment.

Intelligence briefings are among the most important entries on a president’s calendar. The briefer, always a top C.I.A. analyst, delivers the latest secrets and best insights from the 17 intelligence agencies. The oral briefings to Mr. Trump are based on the President’s Daily Brief, the crown jewels of intelligence reports, which draws from spywork to make sophisticated analytic predictions about longstanding adversaries, unfolding plots and emerging crises around the world.

But getting Mr. Trump to remember information, even if he seems to be listening, can be all but impossible, especially if it runs counter to his worldview, former officials said.

When Ms. Sanner replaced Mr. Gistaro in 2019, she tried a new approach. She gives Mr. Trump an agenda to try to keep him on track and deploys a more analytical style than the just-the-facts delivery of Mr. Gistaro.

Over her career, Ms. Sanner, 56, has directed the agency’s training program for new analysts, overseen the assembly of the most sensitive intelligence reports and has expertise in Central Europe, Russia and Southeast Asia. She relies on humor and sarcasm to get her point across and will subtly challenge the president.

If Mr. Trump diverges onto irrelevant topics, she will let him talk before interrupting to confidently ask to move on, said people who have seen Ms. Sanner brief the president.

Credit…Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

Mr. Trump, who made his name in real estate, is drawn to subjects like international economic developments. Ms. Sanner highlights that material and tells the president what is in the intelligence for him, according to people familiar with her briefing style. She draws from recent intelligence reports, or that day’s edition of the President’s Daily Brief, to lay out a compelling story around a new piece of intelligence. The technique is effective, according to associates of Ms. Sanner.

Mr. Trump has also shown interest in foreign leaders, particularly autocrats like President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, and Ms. Sanner mentions them to draw in the president on topics that he might otherwise tune out.

While Mr. Trump does not appear to read the intelligence reports he is given, he will examine graphs, charts and tables. Satellite pictures clearly interest him, too: He tweeted one from his intelligence brief, revealing the capabilities of some of the government’s most classified spy assets.


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  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.


Mr. Trump is hardly the only president to prefer oral briefings. Richard M. Nixon also rarely read his daily intelligence reports, instead receiving updates from Henry A. Kissinger, his national security adviser. Mr. O’Brien updates Mr. Trump on new intelligence throughout the day, including a morning phone call and an end-of-the-day meeting, said a senior administration official.

At the start of Mr. Trump’s tenure, any discussion of Russia could upend the briefing, devolving into complaints by the president that he was unfairly being attacked in the press over Moscow’s election interference campaign.

“There was some venting, which at times made me a little bit frustrated,” Dan Coats, the former director of national intelligence, told congressional investigators. “I thought it was taking away from him getting the intelligence he needed.”

Ms. Sanner mostly sidesteps the risk by broadly covering election threats not just from Russia but also from China, North Korea and Iran.

White House aides have also limited the number of people who attend the intelligence briefings, in part to limit leaks and to restrict the sessions to senior officials that the president is comfortable with, former officials said. Ms. Sanner leads the discussion, and is accompanied most days by Mr. Grenell and often by Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director. Typically, Mr. O’Brien and the White House chief of staff sit in.

On Thursday, a divided Senate voted, 49 to 44, to confirm Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas and a fierce defender of the president, as the new director of national intelligence, the first person to hold the post permanently since Mr. Coats left the administration last summer.

Credit…Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times

Ms. Sanner has cultivated a close relationship with Mr. Trump and has displayed respect for him, former officials said, so some of them were surprised when he and intelligence officials pinned blame for the administration’s coronavirus response on one of her briefings.

“On Jan. 23, I was told that there could be a virus coming in but it was of no real import,” Mr. Trump said in a recent interview with Fox News at the Lincoln Memorial. “In other words, it wasn’t, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to do something.’ It was a brief conversation and it was only on Jan. 23.”

Ms. Sanner did offer limited information in that briefing, an official said, and she compared the virus to SARS, a less contagious coronavirus from China that was more quickly contained. Former officials defended her, saying that the comparison served to help the president understand the threat.

China’s failure to share information, not Ms. Sanner’s presentation, was to blame for the relatively muted warning, according to current and former intelligence officials. Other intelligence officials also noted that public health officials, not spy agencies, were best positioned to sound early warnings about the pandemic.

By February, the intelligence agency warnings were more in line with the increasingly dire predictions of the National Security Council staff and the public health officials. But unlike his aggressive move in January barring travel from China, Mr. Trump later hesitated to act, ignoring increasingly strident warnings from officials who pressed for stronger steps as the threat became clear.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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U.S. to Accuse China of Trying to Hack Vaccine Data, as Virus Redirects Cyberattacks

WASHINGTON — The F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security are preparing to issue a warning that China’s most skilled hackers and spies are working to steal American research in the crash effort to develop vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus. The efforts are part of a surge in cybertheft and attacks by nations seeking advantage in the pandemic.

The warning comes as Israeli officials accuse Iran of mounting an effort in late April to cripple water supplies as Israelis were confined to their houses, though the government has offered no evidence to back its claim. More than a dozen countries have redeployed military and intelligence hackers to glean whatever they can about other nations’ virus responses. Even American allies like South Korea and nations that do not typically stand out for their cyberabilities, like Vietnam, have suddenly redirected their state-run hackers to focus on virus-related information, according to private security firms.

A draft of the forthcoming public warning, which officials say is likely to be issued in the days to come, says China is seeking “valuable intellectual property and public health data through illicit means related to vaccines, treatments and testing.” It focuses on cybertheft and action by “nontraditional actors,” a euphemism for researchers and students the Trump administration says are being activated to steal data from inside academic and private laboratories.

The decision to issue a specific accusation against China’s state-run hacking teams, current and former officials said, is part of a broader deterrent strategy that also involves United States Cyber Command and the National Security Agency. Under legal authorities that President Trump issued nearly two years ago, they have the power to bore deeply into Chinese and other networks to mount proportional counterattacks. This would be similar to their effort 18 months ago to strike at Russian intelligence groups seeking to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections and to put malware in the Russian power grid as a warning to Moscow for its attacks on American utilities.

But it is unclear exactly what the U.S. has done, if anything, to send a similar shot across the bow to the Chinese hacking groups, including those most closely tied to China’s new Strategic Support Force, its equivalent of Cyber Command, the Ministry of State Security and other intelligence units.

The forthcoming warning is also the latest iteration of a series of efforts by the Trump administration to blame China for being the source of the pandemic and exploiting its aftermath.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed this month that there was “enormous evidence” that the virus had come from a Chinese lab before backing off to say it had come from the “vicinity” of the lab in Wuhan. United States intelligence agencies say they have reached no conclusion on the issue, but public evidence points to a link between the outbreak’s origins at a market in Wuhan and China’s illegal wildlife trafficking.

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The State Department on Friday described a Chinese Twitter campaign to push false narratives and propaganda about the virus. Twitter executives have pushed back on the agency, noting that some of the Twitter accounts that the State Department cited were actually critical of Chinese state narratives.

But it is the search for vaccines that has been a particular focus, federal officials say.

“China’s long history of bad behavior in cyberspace is well documented, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone they are going after the critical organizations involved in the nation’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Christopher Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. He added that the agency would “defend our interests aggressively.”

Last week, the United States and Britain issued a joint warning that “health care bodies, pharmaceutical companies, academia, medical research organizations and local governments” had been targeted. While it named no specific countries — or targets — the wording was the kind used to describe the most active cyberoperators: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

The hunt for spies seeking intellectual property has also accelerated. For months, F.B.I. officials have been visiting major universities and presenting largely unclassified briefings about their vulnerabilities.

But some of those academic leaders and student groups have pushed back, comparing the rising paranoia about stolen research to the worst days of the Red Scare era. They particularly objected when Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, declared last month on Fox News that it was “a scandal” that the United States had “trained so many of the Chinese Communist Party’s brightest minds to go back to China.”

Security experts say that while there is a surge of attacks by Chinese hackers seeking an edge in the race for a Covid-19 vaccine, or even effective treatment, the Chinese are hardly alone in seeking to exploit the virus.

Iranian hackers were also caught trying to get inside Gilead Sciences, the maker of remdesivir, the therapeutic drug approved 10 days ago by the Food and Drug Administration for clinical trials. Government officials and Gilead have refused to say if any element of the attack, which was first reported by Reuters, was successful.

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_172271916_02c910f3-90b1-492e-937d-34a8a3a4f8d0-articleLarge U.S. to Accuse China of Trying to Hack Vaccine Data, as Virus Redirects Cyberattacks United States Politics and Government United States International Relations South Korea National Security Agency Medicine and Health Israel Iran Homeland Security Department Federal Bureau of Investigation Espionage and Intelligence Services Cyberwarfare and Defense Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Computers and the Internet Computer Security China
Credit…Mike Blake/Reuters

Israel’s security advisers met last week for a classified session on a cyberattack on April 24 and 25, which the authorities were calling an attempt to cut off water supplies to rural parts of the country. The Israeli news media has widely blamed the attack on Iran, though they have offered no evidence in public. The effort was detected fairly quickly and did no damage, the authorities said.

The rush to attribute the attack to Iran could be faulty. When a Saudi petrochemical plant was similarly attacked in 2017, Iran was presumed as the source of the effort to cause an industrial accident. It turned out to be coordinated from a Russian scientific institute.

The coronavirus has created whole new classes of targets. In recent weeks, Vietnamese hackers have directed their campaigns against Chinese government officials running point on the virus, according to cybersecurity experts.

South Korean hackers have taken aim at the World Health Organization and officials in North Korea, Japan and the United States. The attacks appeared to be attempts to compromise email accounts, most likely as part of a broad effort to gather intelligence on virus containment and treatment, according to two security experts for private firms who said they were not authorized to speak publicly. If so, the moves suggest that even allies are suspicious of official government accounting of cases and deaths around the world.

In interviews with a dozen current and former government officials and cybersecurity experts over the past month, many described a “free-for-all” that has spread even to countries with only rudimentary cyberability.

“This is a global pandemic, but unfortunately countries are not treating it as a global problem,” said Justin Fier, a former national security intelligence analyst who is now the director of cyberintelligence at Darktrace, a cybersecurity firm. “Everyone is conducting widespread intelligence gathering — on pharmaceutical research, PPE orders, response — to see who is making progress.”

The frequency of cyberattacks and the spectrum of targets are “astronomical, off the charts,” Mr. Fier said.

Even before the pandemic, the United States was becoming far more aggressive in pursuing cases involved suspected Chinese efforts to steal intellectual property related to biological research. The Justice Department announced in January that it had charged Charles M. Lieber, the chairman of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, with making false statements related to his participation in China’s Thousand Talents program to recruit scientific talent to the country.

But Harvard also has a joint study program underway with a Chinese institute on coronavirus treatments and vaccines. And researchers have said that international cooperation will be vital if there is hope for a global vaccine, putting the expected national competitions to be first in tension with the need for a cooperative effort.

At Google, security researchers identified more than a dozen nation-state hacking groups using virus-related emails to break into corporate networks, including some sent to U.S. government employees. Google did not identify the specific countries involved, but over the past eight weeks, several nation states — some familiar, like Iran and China, and others not so familiar, like Vietnam and South Korea — have taken advantage of softer security as millions of workers have suddenly been forced to work from home.

“The nature of the vulnerabilities and attacks has altered pretty radically with shelter-in-place,” said Casey Ellis, the founder of Bugcrowd, a security firm. In some cases, Mr. Ellis said, hackers were just “kicking a baby,” hacking hospitals that were already overstretched and simply lacked the resources to prioritize cybersecurity.

In other cases, they were targeting the tools that workers used to remotely access internal networks and encrypted virtual private networks, or VPNs, that allow employees to tunnel into corporate networks, to gain access to proprietary information.

“Governments that might otherwise be reluctant to target international public health organizations, hospitals and commercial organizations are crossing that line because there is such a thirst for knowledge and information,” said John Hultquist, the director of intelligence analysis at FireEye, a cybersecurity firm.

Even Nigerian cybercriminals are getting in on the game: They recently started targeting businesses with coronavirus-themed email attacks to try to convince targets to wire them money, or to steal personal data that could fetch money on the dark web.

“These are not complex, but clever social engineering is getting them through,” said Jen Miller-Osborn, the deputy director of threat intelligence at Palo Alto Networks, a cybersecurity company. Because Nigerian hackers are less skilled, they lack the so-called “op sec,” or operational security, to cover their tracks.

David E. Sanger reported from Washington and Nicole Perlroth from Palo Alto, Calif.

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National Security Surveillance on U.S. Soil Fell Amid Scrutiny of Russia Inquiry

Westlake Legal Group 30dc-surveillance-facebookJumbo National Security Surveillance on U.S. Soil Fell Amid Scrutiny of Russia Inquiry Wiretapping and Other Eavesdropping Devices and Methods United States Surveillance of Citizens by Government Russian Interference in 2016 US Elections and Ties to Trump Associates Privacy Page, Carter Office of the Director of National Intelligence National Security Agency Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Federal Bureau of Investigation Espionage and Intelligence Services Classified Information and State Secrets

WASHINGTON — The number of people targeted for court-approved surveillance by counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigators in 2019 plunged to its lowest level in at least seven years, a drop that coincided with intense scrutiny on the F.B.I.’s use of its national-security wiretapping power in the Trump-Russia investigation.

There were 1,059 such targets of wiretap and search warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, in 2019, according to a newly declassified report released on Thursday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The number of such FISA targets had been on an upward trend during the previous six years, when investigators used FISA to eavesdrop on an average of more than 1,500 people each year — including 1,833 targets in 2018, the peak during that period.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence began issuing a report of surveillance-related statistics annually after the 2013 leaks by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden set off a broad debate about electronic spying.

The report offers a window onto how the intelligence community uses its surveillance powers in ways that may affect the privacy of Americans — information that was once a closely guarded secret, but that the agencies have been trying to be more open about to build and maintain public trust.

The steep decline last year in the number of people targeted for eavesdropping in FISA court orders was among the most striking numbers in the latest report. The drop-off came as the F.B.I.’s use of FISA to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser, came under scrutiny.

President Trump and his allies, including Republicans in Congress, have portrayed the wiretapping of Mr. Page under FISA from October 2016 until mid-2017 as part of a conspiracy by the F.B.I. to sabotage Mr. Trump for political reasons. An otherwise scathing report by the Justice Department’s independent inspector general did not corroborate that theory, but found numerous errors and omissions in the wiretap applications submitted to the FISA court.

Still, a top official cautioned against interpreting the decline in the number of suspects that the F.B.I. sought court permission to wiretap in national security investigations as “seemingly reflecting the events of the day.” The figure includes American targets anywhere in the world, as well as noncitizens on American soil like foreign diplomats.

The official, Benjamin T. Huebner, the chief civil liberties, privacy, and transparency officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, suggested to reporters that fluctuations could be driven by a variety of factors, such as a “change in the terrorism threat” and world events.

He also noted that the number of FISA orders — as opposed to people targeted by those orders — has been on a steadier downward trend. (The F.B.I. can bundle requests to target more than one suspect into the same application for an order.)

A senior Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity in the same briefing with reporters, echoed his points and said she had no information that the number of targets declined based on any “fear of using the FISA tool.”

Both also noted that the government’s use of its traditional FISA powers to obtain a court’s permission to wiretap particular targets has been on an overall downward trend since 2007 and 2008, when Congress adjusted the law to permit warrantless wiretapping of foreigners abroad. Before that, investigators also had to get individual warrants to collect emails from American companies, like Google and Yahoo, in the accounts of noncitizens abroad.

The number of foreign targets of such warrantless surveillance — sometimes known as Section 702, after the portion of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 that authorizes it — has been on a continuous upward trend since at least 2013 and did not divert from it last year, when there were 204,968 such targets. In 2018, there had been 164,770 such targets.

One recurring dispute has been the government’s ability to read private emails to and from Americans gathered without a warrant because they were communicating with a foreigner abroad who was targeted in the 702 program. The report said that analysts queried the database with 9,126 search terms of Americans last year — a slight drop from 2018.

Since an early 2018 change by Congress, F.B.I. analysts working on an ordinary criminal investigation unrelated to foreign intelligence must obtain court permission before they may view a communication in the warrantless surveillance repository, if the message came up in response to a query about an American.

The report said there was one such instance in 2019. It also disclosed that an oversight review in 2019 had identified six such viewings in December 2018, even though last year’s report had said there were none in 2018. But the F.B.I. obtained no court orders granting permission to review the results of such a query either year, the data showed.

The report said the government had reported the unauthorized viewings to the FISA court as rules violations. Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program at New York University Law School, spotted the disclosure “buried in the numbers” and posted about it on Twitter.

“Today’s statistical transparency report reveals, through the dry recitation of numbers, that the F.B.I. has violated this statutory warrant requirement in literally every case in which it has applied,” she wrote, arguing that the episodes underscored a need for greater restrictions on F.B.I. surveillance powers.

An F.B.I. spokeswoman, Kelsey Pietranton, said the episodes amounted to “growing pains” resulting from the new requirement and that they prompted the bureau to modify its systems and include the new rule in training. She also said none of the intercepted communications returned by the query “produced any information that was relevant to the criminal investigation.”

The N.S.A. also disseminated 4,297 intelligence reports that had information about American citizens, permanent residents and organizations like corporations drawn from the warrantless wiretapping program, including 1,562 reports where that identity was openly included rather than hidden from the view of other officials who read it, the report said.

Another recurring controversy has centered on when the intelligence community can unmask an American’s identity in an intelligence report. The standard practice is to conceal it for privacy protection reasons, but the rules permit unmasking the identity if it is necessary to understand the intelligence.

The report said that the N.S.A. unmasked an American’s identity 10,012 times in response to another agency’s request in 2019. That marked a rough return to previous levels after a steep rise to 16,721 such unmaskings in 2018, which was up about 75 percent from 2017 and 2016.

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Trump Officials Said to Press Spies to Hunt for Unproven Links Between Virus and Wuhan Labs

Westlake Legal Group 06dc-virus-intel1-facebookJumbo Trump Officials Said to Press Spies to Hunt for Unproven Links Between Virus and Wuhan Labs Wuhan (China) United States Politics and Government United States International Relations Trump, Donald J Rumors and Misinformation Pottinger, Matthew Pompeo, Mike Office of the Director of National Intelligence National Security Council Laboratories and Scientific Equipment Grenell, Richard Espionage and Intelligence Services Defense Intelligence Agency Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) China central intelligence agency

WASHINGTON — Senior Trump administration officials have pushed American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak, according to current and former American officials. The effort comes as President Trump escalates a public campaign to blame China for the pandemic.

Some intelligence analysts are concerned that the pressure from administration officials will distort assessments about the virus and that they could be used as a political weapon in an intensifying battle with China over a disease that has infected more than three million people across the globe.

Most intelligence agencies remain skeptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found, and scientists who have studied the genetics of the coronavirus say that the overwhelming probability is that it leapt from animal to human in a nonlaboratory setting, as was the case with H.I.V., Ebola and SARS.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former C.I.A. director and the administration’s most vocal hard-liner on China, has taken the lead in pushing American intelligence agencies for more information, according to current and former officials.

And Anthony Ruggiero, the head of the National Security Council’s bureau tracking weapons of mass destruction, expressed frustration during one videoconference in January that the C.I.A. was unable to get behind any theory of the outbreak’s origin. C.I.A. analysts responded that they simply did not have the evidence to support any one theory with high confidence at the time, according to people familiar with the conversation.

The C.I.A.’s judgment was based in part on the fact that no signs had emerged that the Chinese government believed the outbreak came from a lab. The Chinese government has vigorously denied that the virus leaked from a lab while pushing disinformation on its origins, including suggesting that the American military created it.

Any American intelligence report blaming a Chinese institution and officials for the outbreak could significantly harm relations with China for years to come. And Trump administration officials could use it to try to prod other nations to publicly hold China accountable for coronavirus deaths even when the pandemic’s exact origins cannot be determined.

The State Department declined to answer questions about Mr. Pompeo’s role. Spokesmen for the White House and the National Security Council declined to comment. An official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that the intelligence agencies had not agreed on an origin theory but were tracking down information and frequently updating policymakers.

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NBC News reported earlier that administration officials had directed intelligence agencies to try to determine whether China and the World Health Organization hid information early on about the outbreak.

For months, scientists, spies and government officials have wrestled with varying theories about how the outbreak began, and many agree on the importance of determining the genesis of the pandemic. In government and academia, experts have ruled out the notion that it was concocted as a bioweapon. And they agree that the new pathogen began as a bat virus that evolved naturally, probably in another mammal, to become adept at infecting and killing humans.

A few veteran national security experts have pointed to a history of lab accidents infecting researchers to suggest it might have happened in this case, but many scientists have dismissed such theories.

Mr. Trump has spoken publicly about the administration’s “very serious investigations” of the virus’s origin and China’s culpability. Those inquiries took on new urgency in late March, when intelligence officials presented information to the White House that prompted some career officials to reconsider the lab theory. The precise nature of the information, based in part on intercepted communications among Chinese officials, is unclear.

The current and former officials did not say whether Mr. Trump himself, who has shown little regard for the independent judgments of intelligence and law enforcement officials, has pressured the intelligence agencies. But he does want any information supporting the lab theory to set the stage for holding China responsible, according to two people familiar with his thinking.

He has expressed interest in an idea pushed by Michael Pillsbury, an informal China adviser to the White House, that Beijing could be sued for damages, with the United States seeking $10 million for every death. At a news conference this week, Mr. Trump said the administration was discussing a “very substantial” reparations claim against China — an idea that Beijing has already denounced.

“President Trump is demanding to know the origins of the virus and what Xi Jinping knew when about the cover-up,” Mr. Pillsbury said.

Major gaps remain in what is known about the new pathogen, including which kind of animal infected humans with the coronavirus and where the first transmission took place.

Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, has told his agencies to make a priority of determining the virus’s origin. His office convened a review of intelligence officials on April 7 to see whether the agencies could reach a consensus. The officials determined that at least so far, they could not.

Intelligence officials have repeatedly pointed out to the White House that determining the origins of the outbreak is fundamentally a scientific question that cannot be solved easily by spycraft.

A former intelligence official described senior aides’ repeated emphasis of the lab theory as “conclusion shopping,” a disparaging term among analysts that has echoes of the Bush administration’s 2002 push for assessments saying that Iraq had weapons of mass of destruction and links to Al Qaeda, perhaps the most notorious example of the politicization of intelligence.

The C.I.A. has yet to unearth any data beyond circumstantial evidence to bolster the lab theory, according to current and former government officials, and the agency has told policymakers it lacks enough information to either affirm or refute it. Only getting access to the lab itself and the virus samples it contains could provide definitive proof, if it exists, the officials said.

The Defense Intelligence Agency recently changed its analytic position to formally leave open the possibility of a theory of lab origin, officials said. Senior agency officials have asked analysts to take a closer look at the labs.

The reason for the change is unclear, but some officials attributed it to the intelligence analyzed in recent weeks. Others took a more jaundiced view: that the agency is trying to curry favor with White House officials. A spokesman for the agency, James M. Kudla, disputed that characterization. “It’s not D.I.A.’s role to make policy decisions or value judgments — and we do not,” he said.

Some American officials have become convinced that Beijing is not sharing all it knows.

Among Mr. Trump’s top aides, Mr. Pompeo in particular has tried to hammer China over the lab. On Wednesday, he said that the United States still had not “gained access” to the main campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, one of two sites that American officials who favor the lab accident theory have focused on, along with the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Pompeo seemed to refer to internal information about the outbreak during an interview on April 17 with Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host.

“We know that the Chinese Communist Party, when it began to evaluate what to do inside of Wuhan, considered whether the W.I.V. was, in fact, the place where this came from,” said Mr. Pompeo, referring to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The State Department declined to indicate what was behind his assertion.

Scientists who study the coronavirus have maintained that the initial spillover from animal to person could have occurred in any number of ways: at a farm where wild animals are raised, through accidental contact with a bat or another animal that carried the virus, in hunting or transporting animals.

The scientists have also scrutinized the new pathogen’s genes, finding that they show great similarity to bat coronaviruses and bear no hints of human tampering or curation.

The odds were astronomical against a lab release as opposed to an event in nature, said Kristian G. Andersen, the lead author of the paper published in Nature Medicine and a specialist in infectious disease at the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California.

He acknowledged that it was theoretically possible that a researcher had found the new virus, fully evolved, in a bat or other animal and taken it into the lab. But, he said, based on the evidence his team gathered and the numerous opportunities for infection in the interactions that many farmers, hunters and others have with wild animals, “there just isn’t a reason to consider the lab as a potential explanation.”

No evidence supports the theory that the coronavirus originated “in a laboratory either intentionally or by accident,” Daniel R. Lucey, an expert on pandemics at Georgetown University who has closely tracked what is known about the origins, wrote this week.

He has called on China to share information about animals sold at a market in Wuhan that was linked to some of the earliest known cases of people infected with the virus, though not the first one. Dr. Lucey has raised questions about whether the market was, in fact, where the virus spilled over from animals to people. The limited information released about environmental samples taken from the market that were positive for the coronavirus do not resolve whether the source was animals sold there or people working or visiting the market, or both, he wrote.

But Richard Ebright, a microbiologist and biosafety expert at Rutgers University, has argued that the probability of a lab accident was “substantial,” pointing to a history of such occurrences that have infected researchers. The Wuhan labs and other centers worldwide that examine naturally occurring viruses have questionable safety rules, he said, adding, “The standards are lax and need to be tightened.”

American officials said they closely watched China’s government this winter for signs of a lab accident but found nothing conclusive. In February, President Xi Jinping stressed the need for a plan to ensure the “biosafety and biosecurity of the country.” And the Ministry of Science and Technology announced new guidelines for laboratories, especially ones handling viruses.

Global Times, a popular state-run newspaper, then published an article on “chronic inadequate management issues” at laboratories, including problems with biological disposal.

And American scientists who had developed relationships with researchers in the Wuhan labs had been in touch with them during the initial outbreak. But by mid-January, American officials said, the Chinese scientists cut off official communications.

William J. Broad and James Gorman contributed reporting from New York.

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Chinese Agents Spread Messages That Sowed Virus Panic in U.S., Officials Say

Westlake Legal Group 20dc-virus-chinadisinfo1-facebookJumbo Chinese Agents Spread Messages That Sowed Virus Panic in U.S., Officials Say Xi Jinping Trump, Donald J State Department Social Media Rumors and Misinformation National Security Council Homeland Security Department Federal Bureau of Investigation Facebook Inc Espionage and Intelligence Services Diplomatic Service, Embassies and Consulates Defense Department Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Communist Party of China China Central Television central intelligence agency Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Spread the word, the messages said: The Trump administration was about to lock down the entire country.

“They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” warned one of the messages, which cited a source in the Department of Homeland Security. “He said he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared for the call today with his dispatch orders.”

Since that wave of panic, United States intelligence agencies have assessed that Chinese operatives helped push the messages across platforms, according to six American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to publicly discuss intelligence matters. The amplification techniques are alarming to officials because the disinformation showed up as texts on many Americans’ cellphones, a tactic that several of the officials said they had not seen before.

That has spurred agencies to look at new ways in which China, Russia and other nations are using a range of platforms to spread disinformation during the pandemic, they said.

The origin of the messages remains murky. American officials declined to reveal details of the intelligence linking Chinese agents to the dissemination of the disinformation, citing the need to protect their sources and methods for monitoring Beijing’s activities.

The officials interviewed for this article work in six different agencies. They included both career civil servants and political appointees, and some have spent many years analyzing China. Their broader warnings about China’s spread of disinformation are supported by recent findings from outside bipartisan research groups, including the Alliance for Securing Democracy and the Center for a New American Security, which is expected to release a report on the topic next month.

Two American officials stressed they did not believe Chinese operatives created the lockdown messages, but rather amplified existing ones. Those efforts enabled the messages to catch the attention of enough people that they then spread on their own, with little need for further work by foreign agents. The messages appeared to gain significant traction on Facebook as they were also proliferating through texts, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

American officials said the operatives had adopted some of the techniques mastered by Russia-backed trolls, such as creating fake social media accounts to push messages to sympathetic Americans, who in turn unwittingly help spread them.

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The officials say the Chinese agents also appear to be using texts and encrypted messaging apps, including WhatsApp, as part of their campaigns. It is much harder for researchers and law enforcement officers to track disinformation spread through text messages and encrypted apps than on social media platforms.

American intelligence officers are also examining whether spies in China’s diplomatic missions in the United States helped spread the fake lockdown messages, a senior American official said. American agencies have recently increased their scrutiny of Chinese diplomats and employees of state-run media organizations. In September, the State Department secretly expelled two employees of the Chinese Embassy in Washington suspected of spying.

Other rival powers might have been involved in the dissemination, too. And Americans with prominent online or news media platforms unknowingly helped amplify the messages. Misinformation has proliferated during the pandemic — in recent weeks, some pro-Trump news outlets have promoted anti-American conspiracy theories, including one that suggests the virus was created in a laboratory in the United States.

American officials said China, borrowing from Russia’s strategies, has been trying to widen political divisions in the United States. As public dissent simmers over lockdown policies in several states, officials worry it will be easy for China and Russia to amplify the partisan disagreements.

“It is part of the playbook of spreading division,” said Senator Angus King, independent of Maine, adding that private individuals have identified some social media bots that helped promote the recent lockdown protests that some fringe conservative groups have nurtured.

The propaganda efforts go beyond text messages and social media posts directed at Americans. In China, top officials have issued directives to agencies to engage in a global disinformation campaign around the virus, the American officials said.

Some American intelligence officers are especially concerned about disinformation aimed at Europeans that pro-China actors appear to have helped spread. The messages stress the idea of disunity among European nations during the crisis and praise China’s “donation diplomacy,” American officials said. Left unmentioned are reports of Chinese companies delivering shoddy equipment and European leaders expressing skepticism over China’s handling of its outbreak.

Mr. Trump himself has shown little concern about China’s actions. He has consistently praised the handling of the pandemic by Chinese leaders — “Much respect!” he wrote on Twitter on March 27. Three days later, he dismissed worries over China’s use of disinformation when asked about it on Fox News.

“They do it and we do it and we call them different things,” he said. “Every country does it.”

Asked about the new accusations, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement on Tuesday that said, “The relevant statements are complete nonsense and not worth refuting.” Zhao Lijian, a ministry spokesman, has separately rebutted persistent accusations by American officials that China has supplied bad information and exhibited a broader lack of transparency during the pandemic. “We urge the U.S. to stop political manipulation, get its own house in order and focus more on fighting the epidemic and boosting the economy,” Mr. Zhao said at a news conference on Friday.

As diplomatic tensions rose and Beijing scrambled to control the narrative, the Chinese government last month expelled American journalists for three U.S. news organizations, including The Times.

The extent to which the United States might be engaging in its own covert information warfare in China is not clear. While the C.I.A. in recent decades has tried to support pro-democracy opposition figures in some countries, Chinese counterintelligence officers eviscerated the agency’s network of informants in China about a decade ago, hurting its ability to conduct operations there.

Chinese officials accuse Mr. Trump and his allies of overtly peddling malicious or bad information, pointing to the president’s repeatedly calling the coronavirus a “Chinese virus” or the suggestion by some Republicans that the virus may have originated as a Chinese bioweapon, a theory that U.S. intelligence agencies have since ruled out. (Many Americans have also criticized Mr. Trump’s language as racist.)

Republican strategists have decided that bashing China over the virus will shore up support for Mr. Trump and other conservative politicians before the November elections.

Given the toxic information environment, foreign policy analysts are worried that the Trump administration may politicize intelligence work or make selective leaks to promote an anti-China narrative. Those concerns hover around the speculation over the origin of the virus. American officials in the past have selectively passed intelligence to reporters to shape the domestic political landscape; the most notable instance was under President George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq War.

But it has been clear for more than a month that the Chinese government is pushing disinformation and anti-American conspiracy theories related to the pandemic. Mr. Zhao, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, wrote on Twitter in March that the U.S. Army might have taken the virus to the Chinese city of Wuhan. That message was then amplified by the official Twitter accounts of Chinese embassies and consulates.

The state-run China Global Television Network produced a video targeting viewers in the Middle East in which a presenter speaking Arabic asserted that “some new facts” indicated that the pandemic might have originated from American participants in a military sports competition in October in Wuhan. The network has an audience of millions, and the video has had more than 365,000 views on YouTube.

“What we’ve seen is the C.C.P. mobilizing its global messaging apparatus, which includes state media as well as Chinese diplomats, to push out selected and localized versions of the same overarching false narratives,” Lea Gabrielle, coordinator of the Global Engagement Center in the State Department, said in late March, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

But Chinese diplomats and operators of official media accounts recently began moving away from overt disinformation, Ms. Gabrielle said. That dovetailed with a tentative truce Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi reached over publicly sniping about the virus.

American officials said Chinese agencies are most likely embracing covert propagation of disinformation in its place. Current and former American officials have said they are seeing Chinese operatives adopt online strategies long used by Russian agents — a phenomenon that also occurred during the Hong Kong protests last year. Some Chinese operatives have promoted disinformation that originated on Russia-aligned websites, they said.

And the apparent aim of spreading the fake lockdown messages last month is consistent with a type of disinformation favored by Russian actors — namely sowing chaos and undermining confidence among Americans in the U.S. government, the officials said.

“As Beijing and Moscow move to shape the global information environment both independently and jointly through a wide range of digital tools, they have established several diplomatic channels and forums through which they can exchange best practices,” said Kristine Lee, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security who researches disinformation from China and Russia.

“I’d anticipate, as we have seen in recent months, that their mutual learning around these tools will migrate to increasingly cutting-edge capabilities that are difficult to detect but yield maximal payoff in eroding American influence and democratic institutions globally,” she added.

The amplification of the fake lockdown messages was a notable instance of China’s use of covert disinformation messaging, American officials said.

A couple of versions of the message circulated widely, according to The Times analysis. The first instance tracked by The Times appeared on March 13, as many state officials were enacting social distancing policies. This version said Mr. Trump was about to invoke the Stafford Act to shut down the country.

The messages generally attributed their contents to a friend in a federal agency — the Pentagon, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and so on. Over days, hundreds of identical posts appeared on Facebook and the online message board 4chan, among other places, and spread through texts.

Another version appeared on March 15, The Times found. This one said Mr. Trump was about to deploy the National Guard, military units and emergency responders across the United States while imposing a one-week nationwide quarantine.

That same day, the National Security Council announced on Twitter that the messages were fake.

“There is no national lockdown,” it said, adding that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “has and will continue to post the latest guidance.”

“I received several texts from loved ones about content they received containing various rumors — they were explicitly asked to share it with their networks,” she wrote. “I advised them to do the opposite. Misinfo is not what we need right now — from any source foreign or domestic.”

Since January, Americans have shared many other messages that included disinformation: that the virus originated in a U.S. Army laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland, that it can be killed with garlic water, vitamin C or colloidal silver, that it thrives on ibuprofen. Often the posts are attributed to an unnamed source in the U.S. government or an institution such as Johns Hopkins University or Stanford University.

As the messages have sown confusion, it has been difficult to trace their true origins or pin down all the ways in which they have been amplified.

Ben Decker contributed reporting from Boston. Claire Fu contributed research.

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