When it comes to the issue of Russia and Afghanistan, here's what all can agree on: There has been a stream of intelligence saying or suggesting that Russia offered bounties to Taliban-associated militants for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Everything else about this story is in dispute – whether the intelligence community finds the reporting to be credible, exactly when the president was first made aware of the information, whether policy officials discussed the intelligence and what they proposed to the president to do in response, former deputy director of the CIA Michael Morell and former undersecretary of defense for intelligence Mike Vickers wrote in an article for The Washington Post.
"Rather than get drawn into the debate about things we don't know, we want to share what would have happened in a normal 'administration' with a stream of intelligence like this. We define 'normal' as what would have occurred in the six administrations that one or both of us worked within," they said.
"The raw intelligence would have gone quickly to the White House Situation Room to be distributed to policymakers, including the national security adviser. Once it became clear what the Russians might have been doing, every national security adviser with whom we worked would have informed the president. While that was happening, intelligence community analysts would have been assessing the information."
According to the experts, like the national security adviser, intelligence leaders would have taken the issue to the president before the analysts had completed their work, saying something like: "Mr. President, we have information suggesting that Russia might be offering bounties to Taliban-associated militants to kill our soldiers in Afghanistan. If true, this is obviously significant. We are taking a hard look at the information, and we will get back to you with the analysts' thoughts." This would have been done in a presidential daily briefing.
In assessing the information, which would have had a high priority, the analysts would have come to two judgments – whether they thought Russia was indeed offering the bounties and, if so, their confidence level in that judgment – low, medium or high.
If the analysts believed, at any level of confidence, that the Russians were providing the bounties, that judgment would have subsequently been presented in the president's daily brief.
If the analysts concluded the Russians were not offering bounties, there would not have been a daily brief item, but intelligence leaders would have closed the loop with the president, saying something like: "Sir, you will remember that we told you the Russians may be providing bounties to militants in Afghanistan to kill Americans. We looked at the information and deemed it not credible. We will continue to watch this closely, however."
It is important to note that a difference of opinion within the intelligence community on either the judgment itself or the confidence level would not have kept a piece out of a briefing, as some in the current administration have suggested. Rather, the difference would have been included in a briefing item itself – something like "CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency assess the Russians are providing bounties, while the National Security Agency believes there is not enough information to make that judgment."
Once the piece was published in the briefing, intelligence leaders, on something of this significance, would have immediately briefed Congress.
If the analysts had deemed the information credible, a policy discussion would have followed – first at the working levels of the National Security Council staff, then in the deputies committee, thirdly at a principals meeting chaired by the national security adviser and finally at an NSC meeting chaired by the president. Policy options would have been refined along the way. The president would ultimately have decided.
While the U.S. response would probably have varied among the presidents with whom we worked, something like the following would have emerged from most. The goal of any U.S. response would have been aimed at deterring the Russians.
The president would have publicly said that the Russian bounties were unacceptable and must be stopped – and would have reinforced the message in a phone call with President Vladimir Putin, probably with a threat of issuing crippling sanctions if the Russians did not stop. The president also would have said privately to Putin (and then publicly) that any thought of admitting Russia into the Group of Seven was now over and that the decision to reduce U.S. forces in Germany was rescinded, the authors said.
In Afghanistan, the president would have ordered increased force-protection measures, a high priority on targeting the militants who received any bounties, and the targeting for capture and arrest of any Russian covert operatives in Afghanistan.
If the bounties did not end as a result of the above steps, the president would impose the threatened sanctions and consider additional options, including increasing our military assistance to Ukraine and other front-line states facing Russian aggression, and even informing the Russian people about the destabilizing policies and corruption of its leadership.
"When we deploy U.S. servicemen and women into combat zones, every entity in our government has a moral responsibility to do everything it can to bring them home safely. That is what would have driven all of the administrations in which we served," the experts added.