Fast forward to today, and we find ourselves witnessing the Covert Action and Active Measures tactics of the Cold War in use in today's domestic political battles. The approach is roughly the same — truth is subordinate to "will it play”.
A case in point is the evolution of the claim that Russian military intelligence (GRU) has paid bounties to the Taliban for killing American and allied troops. The story has created a major face-off, not between the U.S. and Russia, but between the American people, their political parties and the media. From the moment the bounty story erupted, most of the outrage was directed not so much at the Russians, but at President Trump. What did the president know, when did he know it, and did he, or did he not brace Vladimir Putin on it during his many phone calls with the Russian leader.
Like the toy bomb story decades earlier, the bounty reports were vaguely sourced to Afghan anti-Taliban groups; and U.S. intelligence intercepts reportedly tracked GRU financial transfers to Taliban linked accounts, thus allegedly providing “confirmation,” though not enough, according to New York Times reporting, that the National Security Agency would add its imprimatur to be the initial report on the bounties. The New York Times has also reported that the National Intelligence Council produced a Sense of the Community Memorandum in early July, which, in 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.”
Since then there seem to have been no obvious efforts to get to the bottom of the story by the Trump Administration. No senior military or intelligence officials have publicly and unambiguously confirmed or denied the reports, though Central Command Chief, General Frank McKenzie, CIA Director Gina Haspel, Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, have all, to one degree or another, expressed varying levels of outrage and said they were “studying, or looking into the issue”.
President Trump has been repeatedly asked by White House reporters whether he has challenged Putin on the bounty allegation. From his vague responses, it would appear he has not. It is also more than passingly curious that no reporter seems to have asked the president whether Vladimir Putin had raised the issue with him in their frequent telephone exchanges. It would seem logical that the Russian leader might take a moment to tell the president that such stories are false and that they should be publicly declared false and dismissed. But again, there has been no such declaration by Trump.
All of this reinforces the impression that the president has become boxed-in. If he says he spoke with Putin about the bounties, and that the Russian president denied Russia was paying bounties, as he most certainly would, Trump would be accused of taking sides with the Russian president over his own intelligence community. Another disastrous repeat of the Helsinki fiasco. If, however, the president continues to stonewall, he will appear callous and indifferent to American casualties in Afghanistan. It is a no-win situation for a man to whom winning at any cost is everything.
So wherein might lie the truth? U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have long reported Russia’s double-dealing in the conflict. Russia claims on the one hand to support U.S. efforts to dislodge the Taliban by offering overflights of Russian territory to funnel supplies and American troops to Afghanistan, while on the other hand providing covert assistance, including cash and weapons to the Taliban insurgents. And Russia's covert support of the Taliban can certainly be considered directly or indirectly responsible for American and allied casualties, if not actually constituting bounties paid for them. At some point along the line, the bounty yarn might have been either too good to check, or simply “uncheckable".
During the Cold War, such an allegation against Soviet intelligence would have been dismissed as just too hard to believe, too outlandish to propagate. The GRU was, after all, a professional intelligence organization. But today, with all the old rules gone, Putin's GRU has been convincingly associated with a growing number of zany, violent schemes. GRU Unit 29166 is linked to the poisonings of Russian intelligence turncoats Alexandr Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, as well as his daughter Yulia. Most recently, Aleksei Navalny, an outspoken Putin political foe, was apparently also poisoned. All, except Navalny, were poisoned on sovereign, foreign soil. So causing a few more American casualties just might not be too crazy for Unit 29166 to take on, particularly with the Russian president apparently in a position to believe that the American administration will not seriously challenge him.
So this story ends up where it began. Just as Soviet butterfly bombs were not actually munitions disguised as "toy bombs", and just as Russian arms deliveries and financial transfers to Taliban accounts may not actually be “bounties" paid for killing U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, American oral history will record it differently. The story is too deeply embedded in the American consciousness, with the political parties taking their opposing positions, the media keeping the pot boiling, and the American public falling in along party lines, for the yarn to be seriously challenged.
In the end, truth simply will not matter. The popular narrative, counterfactual or not, will recount that the Russians used toy bombs in their war in Afghanistan and put bounties on the heads of American troops in ours.
Milt Bearden is a Distinguished Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for the National Interest. His highly decorated thirty-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency included service as chief of the Soviet and East European Division in the Directorate of Operations, and as head of the CIA’s covert support to mujahedeen fighting against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.