A strange and circuitous path led Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn toward his fateful telephone contact in late December with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and the flameout of what had been a distinguished military career.
Military and intelligence colleagues who served with Flynn describe him as a brilliant tactician whose work in the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command a decade ago didn’t prepare him for broader challenges as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, from which he was removed in 2014, and national security adviser, the post he resigned Monday night.
“In the JSOC world, you think you’re superman,” said a former Pentagon superior of Flynn’s. After the disappointment at DIA, he said, “Flynn wanted recognition from anyone who would give it to him.” The Russians paid attention, and he reciprocated.
A four-star general who served closely with Flynn sees a painful lesson: “Flynn’s is an advisory tale to naive military officers. Swim with the sharks and you’re sometimes the chum.”
Flynn made his name perfecting the “find, fix, finish” tactics employed by JSOC against al-Qaeda in Iraq. The intelligence haul from one night’s raid would be processed in a few hours, and the leads from cellphones and laptops would drive the next night’s raids.
Those inside JSOC’s super-secret operations felt “we’re conquering the world,” recalls one colleague. Flynn continued to shine as intelligence chief at Centcom, then at the joint staff at the Pentagon, and finally in Afghanistan, where I first met him. His appointment to head the DIA in 2012 was the culmination of what had been a charmed rise to the top.
Then bad things began to happen, some involving Russia, and Flynn’s path began to veer toward Monday’s catastrophe.
The DIA, a messy agency of nearly 20,000, mostly civilians, was famously the underachiever in the intelligence community. Flynn tried to fix everything at once. He had an ambitious but unrealistic plan for fusing the agency into mission centers. His superiors said no; Flynn went ahead anyway. Employees complained of shouting matches, bad leadership and a demoralized agency.
Along the way, Flynn became enthusiastic about improving liaison with Russia, which he saw as a natural counterterrorism partner. He visited the Russian military-intelligence agency, the GRU, in 2013, and came back advocating greater cooperation in monitoring Syrian chemical weapons. Even after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Flynn proposed inviting the intelligence chiefs of its various theater commands to Washington for discussions. His superiors rejected what they saw as a supremely ill-timed proposal.
After Flynn was forced out in 2014, he complained that his ouster reflected disagreements about Middle East strategy. Colleagues at the time say it was simply a story of management failure – a good officer in the wrong job.
An embittered Flynn continued to advocate closer cooperation with Russia – and began issuing strident denunciations of the Obama administration. He told Al-Jazeera television in August 2015 that the rise of the Islamic State was a “willful Washington decision.” He told the German magazine Der Spiegel in December 2015 that U.S. military operations in Iraq and Libya had been a “mistake” and a “strategic failure.” These became major themes for Donald Trump, whose campaign Flynn informally began advising in late 2015.
Flynn did something in December 2015 that has haunted him ever since. He gave a paid speech in Moscow at the 10th anniversary celebration of Russia Today, a global cable network described by U.S. intelligence as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.” The RT interviewer pushed him to say positive things about U.S.-Russian cooperation, and Flynn complied.
“Stop being like two bullies in the playground!” Flynn said in Moscow. “It’s a marriage, whether we like it or not, and that marriage is very, very rocky right now.” In a separate RT interview in Moscow, he urged that the two countries share intelligence and operations centers against Islamic terrorism. Flynn sat next to President Vladimir Putin at a celebratory dinner on that 2015 trip.
Friendly relations continued. During 2016, even as the Russians were mounting what U.S. intelligence described as a covert attack on the presidential election, Flynn had several contacts with Kislyak. The fateful one came in late December, when the two men discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia, even as the Obama administration was expelling 35 diplomats.
Flynn’s fall is a painful story, with many unanswered questions. Perhaps the biggest is why a retired general, schooled in the chain of command, would have talked with Kislyak without consulting his boss, Donald Trump. That’s the White house line, but this investigation of Russiagate is just beginning.
David Ignatius is an award-winning columnist for the Washington Post. Readers can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.