BAGHDAD — The United States is grappling with a rapidly evolving threat from Iranian proxies in Iraq after militia forces specialized in operating more sophisticated weaponry, including armed drones, have hit some of the most sensitive American targets in attacks that evaded U.S. defenses.
At least three times in the past two months, those militias have used small, explosive-laden drones that divebomb and crash into their targets in late-night attacks on Iraqi bases — including those used by the C.I.A. and U.S. Special Operations units, according to American officials.
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the top American commander in the Middle East, said last month that the drones pose a serious threat and that the military was rushing to devise ways to combat them.
Iran — weakened by years of harsh economic sanctions — is using its proxy militias in Iraq to step up pressure on the United States and other world powers to negotiate an easing of those sanctions as part of a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal. Iraqi and American officials say Iran has designed the drone attacks to minimize casualties that could prompt U.S. retaliation.
a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment published in April. In the last year, a proliferation of previously unknown armed groups have emerged, some claiming responsibility for rocket attacks on U.S. targets.
thousands of American military contractors operate.
MQ-9 Reaper drones and contractor-operated turboprop surveillance aircraft are stationed in an attempt to disrupt or cripple the U.S. reconnaissance capability critical to monitoring threats in Iraq.
The United States has used Reapers for its most sensitive strikes, including the killing of Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi government official and a leader of Iraq’s militia groups, in Baghdad in January 2020.
While the United States has installed defenses to counter rocket, artillery and mortar systems at installations in Iraq, the armed drones fly too low to be detected by those defenses, officials said.
Shortly before midnight on April 14, a drone strike targeted a C.I.A. hangar inside the airport complex in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, according to three American officials familiar with the matter.
No one was reported hurt in the attack, but it alarmed Pentagon and White House officials because of the covert nature of the facility and the sophistication of the strike, details of which were previously reported by The Washington Post.
talks between them in Baghdad in April, the Saudis demanded that Iran stop those attacks, according to Iraqi officials.
While visiting northeastern Syria last month, General McKenzie, the top American commander for the region, said military officials were developing ways to disrupt or disable communications between the drones and their operators, bolster radar sensors to identify approaching threats more rapidly, and find effective ways to down the aircraft.
In each of the known attacks in Iraq, at least some of the drones’ remnants have been partially recovered, and preliminary analyses indicated they were made in Iran or used technology provided by Iran, according to the three American officials familiar with the incidents.
These drones are larger than the commercially available quadcopters — small helicopters with four rotors — that the Islamic State used in the battle of Mosul, but smaller than the MQ-9 Reapers, which have a 66-foot wingspan. Military analysts say they carry between 10 and 60 pounds of explosives.
Iraqi officials and U.S. analysts say that while cash-strapped Iran has reduced funding for major Iraqi militias, it has invested in splitting off smaller, more specialized proxies still operating within the larger militias but not under their direct command.
American officials say that these specialized units are likely to have been entrusted with the politically delicate mission of carrying out the new drone strikes.
Iraqi security commanders say groups with new names are fronts for the traditional, powerful Iran-backed militias in Iraq such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Iraqi officials say Iran has used the new groups to try to camouflage, in discussions with the Iraqi government, its responsibility for strikes targeting U.S. interests, which often end up killing Iraqis.
The Iraqi security official said members of the smaller, specialized groups were being trained at Iraqi bases and in Lebanon as well as in Iran by the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — which oversees proxy militias in the Middle East.
American and Iraqi officials and analysts trace the increased unpredictability of militia operations in Iraq to the U.S. killing of General Suleimani and the Iraqi militia leader.
“Because the Iranian control over its militias has fragmented after the killing of Qassim Suleimani and Abu Mahdi Muhandis, the competition has increased among these groups,” said Mr. Malik, the Washington Institute analyst.
Jane Arraf reported from Baghdad and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Falih Hassan contributed reporting.
WASHINGTON — In early 2020, members of a Taliban-linked criminal network in Afghanistan detained in raids told interrogators that they had heard that Russians were offering money to reward killings of American and coalition troops.
The claim, that Russia was trying to pay to generate more frequent attacks on Western forces, was stunning, particularly because the United States was trying at the same time to negotiate a deal with the Taliban to end the long-running war in Afghanistan. C.I.A. analysts set out to see whether they could corroborate or debunk the detainees’ accounts.
Ultimately, newly declassified information shows, those analysts discovered a significant reason to believe the claim was accurate: Other members of the same Taliban-linked network had been working closely with operatives from a notorious unit of the G.R.U., the Russian military intelligence service, known for assassination operations.
“The involvement of this G.R.U. unit is consistent with Russia encouraging attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan given its leading role in such lethal and destabilizing operations abroad,” the National Security Council said in a statement provided to The New York Times.
U.S. sanctions and other punishments against Russia. The White House took diplomatic action — delivering a warning and demanding an explanation for suspicious activities — about the bounty issue, but did not base sanctions on it. The Biden administration did impose sanctions for Russia’s SolarWinds hacking and election interference.
The Times had reported last summer that different intelligence agencies, while agreeing on the assessment itself, disagreed on whether to put medium or lower confidence in it. The evidence available to analysts — both alarming facts and frustrating gaps — essentially remains the same.
The release of the full talking points as a statement is the government’s most detailed public explanation yet about how the C.I.A. came to the judgment that Russia had most likely offered financial incentives to reward attacks on American and allied troops. It also sheds new light on the gaps in the evidence that raised greater concerns among other analysts.
not intercepted any smoking-gun electronic communication about a bounty plot. (The Defense Intelligence Agency shares that view, while the National Counterterrorism Center agrees with the C.I.A.’s “moderate” level, officials have said.)
But the statement reveals that despite that disagreement over how to rate the quality of available information underlying the core assessment, the intelligence community also had “high confidence” — meaning the judgment is based on high-quality information from multiple sources — in the key circumstantial evidence: Strong ties existed between Russian operatives and the Afghan network where the bounty claims arose.
“We have independently verified the ties of several individuals in this network to Russia,” the National Security Council statement said. It added, “Multiple sources have confirmed that elements of this criminal network worked for Russian intelligence for over a decade and traveled to Moscow in April 2019.”
The declassified statement also opened a window into American officials’ understanding of the Russian operatives, known as Unit 29155 of the G.R.U. The government has previously resisted talking openly about group, although a Times investigation in 2019 linked it to various operations, citing Western security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
By contrast, the National Security Council statement identified other “nefarious operations” around the world that the government thought the squad had carried out — to explain why the discovery of its involvement with the Afghan network was seen as bolstering the credibility of the detainees’ claims about Russian bounties.
the 2018 poisoning of a former G.R.U. officer, Sergei V. Skripal, in Salisbury, England, and of “assassinations across Europe.”
Unit 29155 was involved in two explosions at ammunition depots that killed two Czechs in 2014. He said the government would expel nearly 80 Russian diplomats.
Days later, the prosecutor general’s office in Bulgaria announced that it was investigating a possible connection between Unit 29155 and four explosions at ammunition depots over the past decade. At least two happened while members of the unit were frequently traveling in and out of Bulgaria, the office said.
Some of the destroyed arms in both countries, according to officials, belonged to Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian arms manufacturer who was poisoned in 2015 along with his son and an executive in his company. Officials have previously accused Unit 29155 in that attempted assassination.
While most previous reports about Unit 29155’s activities have centered in Europe, its leader, Maj. Gen. Andrei V. Averyanov, has experience in Central Asia. He graduated in 1988 from the Tashkent Military Academy in what was then the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, a year before the Soviet pullout from bordering Afghanistan.
The government apparently did not declassify everything. The White House statement described but did not detail certain evidence, keeping its sources and methods of information-gathering secret. It did not specify the G.R.U. unit’s number, but officials have said it was Unit 29155, and the two prior operations the statement mentioned have been attributed to it elsewhere.
as a middleman for the Russian spies, and Habib Muradi. Both escaped capture and are said to have fled to Russia.
And it made no mention of other circumstantial evidence officials have previously described, like the discovery that money was transferred from a G.R.U. account to the Afghan network.
In an interview published April 30 in a Russian newspaper, Nikolai Patrushev, the chairman of Russia’s Security Council, again said it was false that Russia had covertly offered bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan, adding that there was no evidence that it had done so.
The White House statement also brought into sharper focus two gaps in the available evidence that analysts saw as a reason to be cautious.
Military leaders have repeatedly pointed to one in public: The intelligence community lacks proof tying any specific attack to a bounty payment. “We cannot confirm that the operation resulted in any attacks on U.S. or coalition forces,” the National Security Council said.
The other reason for caution is an absence of information showing that a Kremlin leader authorized Unit 29155 to offer bounties to Afghan militants. “We do not have evidence that the Kremlin directed this operation,” the statement said.
The Biden administration’s briefing to reporters last month reignited a debate over the political implications of the C.I.A.’s assessment — and the Trump White House’s handling of it — that unfolded last year and dwelled in part on confidence levels.
reported last June on the existence of the C.I.A. assessment and that the White House had led an interagency effort to come up with options to respond but then authorized none.
Facing bipartisan criticism, the Trump administration defended its inaction by playing down the assessment as too weak to take seriously, falsely denying that it had been briefed to President Donald J. Trump. In fact, it had been included in his written presidential daily briefing in late February, two officials have said.
In congressional testimony, military leaders based in the United States who regularly interacted with the Trump White House said they would be outraged if it were true, but they had not seen proof that any attack resulted from bounties. But some military officials based in Afghanistan, as well as some other senior Pentagon and State Department officials, thought the C.I.A. was right, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations at the time.
Among those who found the evidence and analysis persuasive was Nathan Sales, the State Department’s politically appointed top counterterrorism official during the Trump administration.
“The reporting that Russia was placing bounties on American soldiers’ heads was so serious that it warranted a robust diplomatic response,” Mr. Sales said this week in an email.
A top Pentagon official and the secretary of state at the time, Mike Pompeo, later delivered warnings over the issue to their Russian counterparts, effectively breaking with the White House.
After the briefing last month, some Trump supporters — as well as some left-wing critics of the C.I.A. and military interventions — argued that the C.I.A.’s bounty assessment had been debunked as evidence-free “fake news,” vindicating Mr. Trump’s dismissal of the issue last year as a “hoax.” Russian propaganda outlets echoed and amplified those assertions.
Michael J. Morell, a former acting director of the C.I.A., said another factor had fostered confusion. When analysts assess something with low confidence, he said, that does not mean they think the conclusion is wrong. Rather, they are expressing greater concerns about the sourcing limitations, while still judging that the assessment is the best explanation of the available facts.
“A judgment at any confidence level is a judgment that the analysts believe to be true,” he said. “Even when you have a judgment that is low confidence, the analysts believe that judgment is correct. So in this case, the analysts believe that the Russians were offering bounties.”
Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Michael Schwirtz from New York. Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration warned the Kremlin on Thursday over the C.I.A.’s conclusion that Russia had covertly offered payments to militants to encourage more killings of American and coalition troops in Afghanistan, delivering the diplomatic admonition as it imposed sanctions on Moscow over its hacking and election interference.
But the administration stopped short of inflicting sanctions on any Russian officials over the suspected bounties, making clear that the available evidence about what happened — primarily what Afghan detainees told interrogators — continues to fall short of definitively proving that Russia paid money to reward attacks.
The intelligence community, a senior administration official told reporters, “assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019, and perhaps earlier, including through financial incentives and compensation.”
The New York Times first reported last summer the existence of the C.I.A.’s assessment and that the National Security Council had led an interagency process to develop a range of response options — but that months had passed and the Trump White House had failed to authorize any response, not even a diplomatic protest.
financial transfers, and that the C.I.A. placed medium confidence in its conclusion.
But, it also reported, the National Security Agency — which is focused on electronic surveillance — placed lower confidence in the assessment, citing the lack of smoking-gun electronic intercepts. Analysts at two other agencies that were consulted, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Defense Intelligence Agency, were also said to split, with the former backing the C.I.A. and the latter the National Security Agency.
Former intelligence officials, including in testimony about the issue before Congress, have noted that it is rare in the murky world of intelligence to have courtroom levels of proof beyond a reasonable doubt about what an adversary is covertly doing.
The re-scrub of available evidence by President Biden’s administration had not uncovered anything new and significant enough to bring greater clarity to that muddied intelligence portrait, so the disagreement over confidence levels remained, an official familiar with internal deliberations said.
The Biden official’s explanation to reporters dovetailed with that account.
Intelligence agencies, the official explained, “have low to moderate confidence in this judgment in part because it relies on detainee reporting, and due to the challenging operating environment, in Afghanistan.”
fled to Russia — possibly while using a passport linked to a Russian spy agency.
The New Washington
As a result, the detainees who recounted to interrogators what they were told about the purported arrangement were not themselves in the room for conversations with Russian intelligence officials. Without an electronic intercept, either, there was a pattern of evidence that fit the C.I.A.’s assessment but no explicit eyewitness account of the interactions.
The Russian government has denied that it covertly offered or paid bounties to drive up attacks on American and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
The public disclosure of the C.I.A.’s assessment — and the White House’s months of inaction in response — prompted a bipartisan uproar in Congress. Defending the inaction, President Donald J. Trump labeled the reporting “a hoax” and his White House denied that he had been told about it, seeking to dismiss the intelligence assessment as too weak to be taken seriously.
In fact, it had been included in his written intelligence briefing in late February 2020 and disseminated more broadly to the intelligence community in early May.
But it was also true that analysts at the National Security Agency disagreed with the C.I.A. over how much confidence to place in the agency’s conclusion, based on the imperfect array of available evidence. The Trump administration played up that split.
In testimony before Congress about the issue, Michael J. Morell, a former acting C.I.A. director, disputed the White House’s suggestion that such an assessment had to be unanimously backed by intelligence agencies to be taken seriously.
In previous administrations, he said last July, if the intelligence community assessed such information at any level of confidence, officials would have told both the president and congressional leaders immediately about that judgment and any dissent. If the confidence level were low, he said, an administration would seek more information before acting, while a medium- or high-confidence assessment would most likely result in a response.
never raised the issue of the bounty intelligence in his conversations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. But after the C.I.A.’s assessment became public, senior military and diplomatic officials, including the secretary of state at the time, Mike Pompeo, warned their counterparts after all.
“If the Russians are offering money to kill Americans or, for that matter, other Westerners as well, there will be an enormous price to pay. That’s what I shared with Foreign Minister Lavrov,” Mr. Pompeo said in August during a trip to the Czech Republic. “I know our military has talked to their senior leaders, as well. We won’t brook that. We won’t tolerate that.”
Still, in testimony before Congress and in other remarks, senior Pentagon officials — caught between not wanting to aggravate the White House and not wanting to appear indifferent about the safety of troops — said they would be outraged if the C.I.A. assessment was correct, but also had yet to see definitive proof.
“It is not closed because we never close investigations that involve threats or potential threats against U.S. forces,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said late last year when asked about the status of the inquiry. “We’re looking at it very hard.”
Mr. Biden attacked Mr. Trump for failing to do anything about the C.I.A. assessment, portraying it as part of a strange pattern of deference he said Mr. Trump had shown toward Russia. Mr. Biden mentioning the matter in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination and brought it up in his first call as president with Mr. Putin.
While the sanctions imposed on Thursday were based on alleged Russian misdeeds other than the suspected bounties, the senior administration official said the diplomatic action about the available information “puts a burden on the Russian government to explain its actions, and take steps to address this disturbing pattern of behavior.”
The official added, “We cannot and will not accept the targeting of our personnel like this.”
Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
WASHINGTON — The Russian military buildup at the Ukraine border and in Crimea could provide enough forces for a limited military incursion, the C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, told senators on Wednesday as he and other senior officials outlined a range of threats facing the United States.
Russia could simply be sending a signal to the United States or trying to intimidate the Ukrainian government, but it had the abilities in place to do more, Mr. Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“That buildup has reached the point that it could provide the basis for a limited military incursion, as well,” Mr. Burns said. “It is something not only the United States but our allies have to take very seriously.”
Mr. Burns testified alongside Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, and other officials about an array of threats from global powers like Russia and China as well as challenges that have been less of a focus of intelligence agencies in the past, including domestic extremism and climate change.
annual threat assessment report, released Tuesday ahead of the hearing, the intelligence community said that China’s push for global power posed a threat to the United States through its aggression in its region, its expansion of its surveillance abilities and its attempts to dominate technological advances.
Russia has also pushed for a sphere of influence that includes countries that were part of the Soviet Union, like Ukraine, the report said.
Both China and Russia, however, wanted to avoid direct confrontation with the United States, the report said.
Mr. Burns said the Russian actions have prompted internal briefings as well as consultations with allies. President Biden’s call on Tuesday to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was intended to “register very clearly the seriousness of our concern,” Mr. Burns said.
The United States has been tracking the Russian troops for some time, at least since late March. American officials have said privately that the Russians have done little to hide their troop buildup, unlike in 2014 when they first attacked Ukraine. That has convinced some, but not all, officials briefed on the intelligence that the Russian activities may be mostly for show.
penetrated nine federal agencies, and another by China that compromised Microsoft Exchange servers. The Biden administration is expected to respond to the Russian hacking soon, most likely with sanctions and other measures.
Ms. Haines said Russia used hackings to sow discord and threaten the United States and its allies. “Russia is becoming increasingly adept at leveraging its technological prowess to develop asymmetric options in both the military and cyberspheres in order to give itself the ability to push back and force the United States to accommodate its interests,” she said.
Lawmakers also raised the issue of a series of mysterious episodes that have injured diplomats and C.I.A. officers overseas. Some former officials believe Russia is behind the episodes, which they have called attacks.
Mr. Burns said he was working with his colleagues to ensure better medical care for C.I.A. officers. He also said he was working to “get to the bottom of the question of what caused these incidents and who might have been responsible.”
Questions on China dominated the earlier Senate confirmation hearings for Ms. Haines and Mr. Burns, and lawmakers again pressed on Wednesday for assessments on China and its efforts to steal American technology. Ms. Haines outlined how China uses technological might, economic influence and other levers of power to intimidate its neighbors.
“China is employing a comprehensive approach to demonstrate its growing strength and compel regional neighbors to acquiesce to Beijing’s preferences,” she told senators.
another recent intelligence report, on global trends, highlighted how the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, along with technological change, were testing “the resilience and adaptability” of society. The “looming disequilibrium,” she said, compels intelligence agencies to broaden their definition of national security.
But at least one lawmaker, Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, also asked a more practical question: How many intelligence officers have received coronavirus vaccines?
Mr. Burns said 80 percent of the C.I.A. work force was fully vaccinated and another 10 percent have had their first shot. He said all C.I.A. officers serving overseas “have the vaccine available to them directly.”
Mr. Wray was unable to give an estimate of how many of his agents had received a shot, saying that the vaccination rates varied in field offices in different states. Ms. Haines said 86 percent of her work force had had at least one shot, with a “fair percentage” being fully vaccinated. General Nakasone also had no estimate but said a vaccination center had been set up at Fort Meade, Md., where the National Security Agency’s headquarters is.
Lawmakers have also been pressing intelligence agencies to help examine the problem of domestic extremism. Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia and the chairman of the intelligence committee, linked the rise of domestic extremism to the same trends promoting disinformation produced by Russia and others. And he said he wanted the intelligence chiefs to outline how they could help provide better warnings of potential violence like the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“go back to school.” Mr. Trump’s last director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, chose not to release a threat assessment or testify before Congress last year.