Bountygate: A Lesson in Mouthpiece-Journalism

Another false Russia story bites the dust.

We tend to expect that journalists at all times uncover, verify, and present factually accurate news, so that we may be better informed of the world and its happenings. Today, however, journalistic outlets that have earned recognition as institutions require others – private citizens and freelance investigators alike – to hold said institutions accountable for spreading disinformation. In few areas is this as true as in the American media’s reporting on Russia.


Beginning in the summer preceding the 2020 Presidential election, the New York Times reported that Russia was providing incentives for killing US soldiers. According to an anonymous source in the Intelligence Community (IC), a top-secret unit within the G.R.U., Russia’s military intelligence, was placing bounties on the heads of US and NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan, which were to be collected by “Taliban-linked militants.” This “delicate” intelligence was “based at least in part on interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals” and did not elucidate how the bounties were to be paid, nor which targets were selected. Still, the New York Times claimed at the time that “officials were said to be confident about the intelligence that Russian operatives offered and paid bounties to Afghan militants for killing Americans.”


Shortly thereafter ‘Bountygate’ was born as mainstream outlets took up the story and presented it as fact, generating outrage among lawmakers and the public about what was portrayed as an attack on the US by Russia. The Washington Post published a follow-up to the original New York Times article which ‘confirmed’ the story, claiming that intelligence findings described by “several people familiar with the matter” pointed towards these bounties being connected to the deaths of service members. The Head of US Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie stated he was not able to establish that such bounties – if they existed – had in fact resulted in the deaths of US soldiers.


The opposition to President Donald Trump was instrumental in pushing this story to the fore of public discourse, as Trump’s refusal to believe the bounty intel – or at least his ignorance of the intel prior to the NYT’s reporting – seemingly confirmed the narrative that Trump was “Putin’s man”, all the while providing an opportunity to undermine one of Trump’s biggest promises: bringing an end to America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan. Seizing the opportunity, on 1 July 2020 the House Armed Services Committee voted in favor of an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which restricted Trump's ability to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan until an assessment of the dangers posed to US forces, including an investigation of incentives to kill US soldiers, was delivered to Congress.


With the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the US and the secured continuation of America’s war in Afghanistan, Bountygate had reached its expiration date and mostly disappeared from the public consciousness. Then, in April of this year, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki revealed that intelligence assessments only ever produced “low-to-moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against US and Coalition personnel in Afghanistan”, which is tantamount to an acknowledgment that the intel behind the Bountygate claims remains uncorroborated and possibly false.


The originary proponents of Bountygate, the New York Times, have since doubled down on their claims, reporting as recently as May 7th that the existence of a Russian bounty program had been justified by reports of other, albeit unrelated, G.R.U. activities in Afghanistan. According to the logic of intelligence analysis, as explicated by the Times article, the low-confidence detainee testimony regarding Russian bounties combined with high-confidence reports of a general G.R.U. presence produced a moderate-confidence assessment among CIA analysts that the Russians had in fact offered and paid bounties. The existence of the bounties themselves, however, could not be substantiated. At one point the NYT reported on money transfers from G.R.U. to Taliban-linked financial accounts, however these transfers have yet to be tied to the purported bounty program, let alone be proven to exist in the first place.


Throughout the NYT’s reporting, which informed subsequent stories in the Times and elsewhere, the sources of the information were “anonymous officials”, the National Security Council, and other organs of US intelligence. While Bountygate is arguably one of the most high-profile cases of mainstream media relaying and sensationalizing questionable intel, it is by no means isolated. Case in point, in August 2020 CNN broke the story that Iran was also paying rewards for attacks carried out by the Taliban against US forces, and according to Axios, further intel suggested the existence of a Chinese bounty program as well.


In another example, for years following the Democratic National Committee (DNC) email leaks of 2016 the mainstream media reported with certainty that Russian hackers were the culprits. The New York Times wrote in 2016 that American intelligence agencies had assessed with high confidence “that the Russian government was behind the theft of emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee.” However, according to the declassified hearing of Shawn Henry (President of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike which investigated the leak) before the House Select Committee on Intelligence, CrowdStrike was unable to find concrete evidence that DNC data had been exfiltrated and that the Russian government was responsible for the appearance of private DNC e-mails online.


At a time when traditional media has effectively become integrated into the intelligence apparatus and news stories are repeatedly shown to stand on shaky foundations, it is unsurprising that these outlets are losing the trust of the American public. According to Gallup, in 2020 only 40% of Americans indicated that they trusted mass media at least a fair amount. If trust is to be restored, only critical and fact-based journalism in place of the present media establishment will suffice.


Julian Fisher is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC). This article was originally published with Modern Diplomacy.