The Times first reported in June that the C.I.A. had concluded that the Russian operatives had covertly offered and paid bounties to a Taliban-linked criminal network to incentivize more frequent attacks on American and other coalition troops in Afghanistan amid peace talks to end the long-running war there. But even though the National Security Council assembled a range of potential responses, like a diplomatic warning or sanctions, months had passed and the White House authorized none of them.
Amid bipartisan criticism, the White House has defended its months of inaction by falsely suggesting that no one deemed the C.I.A. assessment worthy of sharing with Mr. Trump — in fact, it was in his written briefing in February, although officials have told Congress that his aides did not orally bring his attention to it — and by portraying the information as uncertain.
Amid the turbulence, details about its basis have trickled out. The constellation of evidence included the accounts of interrogated Afghan detainees, a large seizure of cash found in a raid, data showing transfers of funds from a bank account controlled by the G.R.U. to the Taliban, and travel records showing intermediaries going between Russia and Afghanistan.
There was an additional clue, two officials confirmed this week: At least one passport number used by someone suspected of involvement in the bounty operation was close to a narrow range of passport numbers that Western intelligence officials say are known to have been assigned to operatives from the G.R.U.’s Unit 29155, suggesting it came from the same batch.
The Times asked officials about passport numbers after an anonymously run blog called Nightingale, which focuses on Russian covert operations, reported on Tuesday that a businessman named Rahmatullah Azizi used a Russian passport number near that range. American and Afghan officials have identified Mr. Azizi as a key middleman believed to have handed out Russian money to Taliban-linked fighters for targeting coalition troops in Afghanistan. He is believed to be in Russia.
The officials confirmed that batch passport numbers were generally part of the intelligence that contributed to the C.I.A.’s assessment without discussing the blog’s specific claims. But the disclosure of the additional type of evidence further undercut the White House’s portrayal of the intelligence as too insubstantial to merit presidential attention.
Unit 29155 has primarily been known for its links to several partly botched covert operations that came to light in Europe, including the 2018 nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury, England, of Sergei Skripal, a former G.R.U. officer who had worked for British intelligence and then defected, and his daughter; an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016; and the poisoning of an arms manufacturer in Bulgaria a year earlier.