"What I know is that our military commanders on the ground did not think that it was as serious a problem as the newspapers were reporting and television was reporting," Powell told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell. "It got kind of out of control before we really had an understanding of what had happened. I’m not sure we fully understand now."
Powell added that Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command "did not think this was of that level of importance to us.
"Remember, it’s not the intelligence community that’s going to go fight these guys, it’s the guys on the ground. It’s our troops. It’s our commanders who are going to go deal with this kind of a threat, using intelligence that was given to them by the intelligence community.
"But that has to be analyzed," Powell went on. "It has to be attested. And then you have to go find out who the enemy is. And I think we were on top of that one, but it just got — it got almost hysterical in the first few days."
Trump has denied reports that he was briefed on intelligence about the bounties, but did nothing about them.
"The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party," he tweeted last week. Both the White House and McKenzie have indicated the intelligence wasn't strong enough to merit the president's attention.
"The intel case wasn't proved to me -- it wasn't proved enough that I'd take it to a court of law -- and you know that's often true in battlefield intelligence," McKenzie told reporters Tuesday.
“You see a lot of indicators," the general explained. "Many of them are troubling, many of them you act on. But, in this case there just wasn't enough there. I sent the intelligence guys back to continue to dig on it, and I believe they're continuing to dig right now, but I just didn't see enough there to tell me that the circuit was closed in that regard.”
McKenzie also expressed doubts that the bounty program led to the deaths of any U.S. soldiers.