Presidents who do not have a working knowledge of foreign policy tend to lean on a trusted adviser to get them through a confusing and troubled world. While this can have great consequences (Henry Kissinger persuading Richard Nixon to open up to China), it also can have horrible endings (Kissinger dictating Vietnam’s war policies). As we sit on the precipice of a Donald Trump presidency, we are watching a man enter office who has little knowledge of foreign policy and with little desire to learn more about it. It is important to understand whom he would then turn to in times of crisis.
Since before his election, Trump has sought counsel from Michael Flynn, a former Army intelligence officer, and named him as his national security adviser in November. The national security adviser has outsized influence in the White House to dictate what intelligence and information the president sees and knows, and has the ear of the president more than anyone else since his office will be just outside the Oval Office (or somewhere in Trump Tower if that becomes the seat of American power).
I first came to know Flynn in the Army, where he commanded the school that trained me as an intelligence analyst. Then I worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, which Flynn also commanded for a short time. I did not know him well but we had some run-ins and I knew people around him. For a man with such potential and brilliance, it is a mystery how he went from being a mild-mannered staff officer to a brash general officer then civilian who has espoused Islamophobia, traded in some of the most spurious conspiracy theories, and has now come to be in the top levels of a presidential administration that will represent the most extreme right elements of American politics.
I first saw Flynn in 2002 and 2003 when he was a colonel and leader of the military intelligence school in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. In the early winter of 2003, I was heading off to an unknown unit in Germany and likely to the impending Iraq War. Flynn sat down with me and a couple other soldiers at breakfast before graduation and asked us where we were headed. When I told him where I was going, he looked at me gravely and told me I was headed to war. I said I knew and thanked him for being so candid.
When Brigadier General Flynn worked as the head of intelligence for Afghanistan, he wrote a controversial policy manual for intelligence work. He suggested that analysts, like myself, “get outside the wire” more so we understood what the people, towns and cities we studied were actually like. It made sense but it also pitted some in the civilian world against those in the military.
From 2009 through 2013, I worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency’s counterterrorism unit and in 2012, Lieutenant General Flynn took over command of the agency. There was some trepidation from civilians who wondered if he was going to put them “outside the wire” everyday. His initial actions were to call for Vision 2020, which led to everything from a complete reframing of the agency to civilians doing physical training in the morning (though this died a quick death). It did not escape our attention how he coldly noted that those who did not follow the model would be summarily removed from the agency.
There were moments of humor on the desk. A presentation about women and men dressing a certain way went out to the staff shortly after Flynn started. It sounded like something the Taliban would have produced. Flynn said he did not ask for it but this manual never saw the light of day until he arrived. Within days of it hitting internal systems, the mockery caused a quick reversal. (Many analysts say they still have a copy at their desks if they need something to laugh at.)
But things also could turn serious and deadly. On September 11, 2012, there was an attack at an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. That the attack occurred on the anniversary of 9/11 was not lost on any analyst inside the counterterrorism unit because many were in Washington, D.C. on that hallowed day. Flynn brought senior analysts into his office shortly after the incident and asked them what happened. They explained they were certain that a local terrorist group carried out the attack and strong reports suggested that it was a solid connection. In their minds, the briefing was over.
Instead, Flynn asked about a “black swan” event — perhaps they had not considered the slim chance that there was something else going on in Benghazi. He strongly suggested that the analysts were using staid old assessments and not digging deep enough, that a state actor had conducted the attack. The New York Times dug deeper to reveal that Flynn ultimately blamed the Iranian government. Remember when another White House blamed state actors for terrorist actions and connections? The pressure to prove these links is what intelligence officials faced in the run-up to the Iraq War under George W. Bush.
Flynn’s “black swan” theory gelled with concerns around the agency that Flynn pushed raw intelligence, known as “stovepiping,” to the White House. These reports were allegedly spurious conspiracy theories and put Flynn at odds with the president’s national security team. Sure enough, within months of this chatter, Flynn was out.
There are some who saw Flynn’s actions as pushing analysts and testing the limits of conventional wisdom. That is okay when you are in a small team or working around the office. But when you are the director of a national intelligence agency, when you are expected to brief the president, Congress and national leadership, then you should not be speaking off the cuff. As a source explained to Tom Ricks, there is a difference between being in charge of targeting for a unit and advising a president.
In choosing Flynn as the national security adviser, the president-elect will put a man who leans toward conspiracy theories as justification for action. This is especially concerning because I spoke with some former co-workers about the choice and they recalled a director who told them he was “always right.”
Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: please forward this to others: the truth fears no questions… https://t.co/NLIfKFD9lU
— General Flynn (@GenFlynn) February 27, 2016
Flynn would be an adviser who tells the president he is “right” when he says Islam is a “vicious cancer” or fear of Muslims is “rational.” Not to mention, Flynn is also prone to post “fake news” more than mainstream news. How would that play out if he again started spreading bogus rumors that, for example, terrorists cross through the Mexican border? Would he be the cautioning voice against a Muslim registry or would he encourage such draconian moves as tensions increase across the world?
If Flynn wanted to start laying a path for conflict or war against Iran, he has an easy way to get there. He will have the ear of President Trump, not known as a voracious reader or consumer of information. Flynn will control the flow of information in the West Wing and make it nearly impossible for anything to get into the Oval Office or Situation Room unless he approves the message.
We are facing an America where the top national security leader can filter or even direct intelligence assets to produce information that justifies his point of view. Recent reporting suggests Trump rarely receives the President Daily Brief, the gold standard of the intelligence community. So where is Trump getting his information from then? Perhaps from his national security adviser, the man he has trusted since first entering the race for president.
It is fairly easy to envision another scenario like San Bernardino or Orlando in the United States. The intelligence community would note that this attack came from online inspiration, but Flynn will have tired of this explanation. He will dig up both open source and classified intelligence to suggest that Iran has smuggled terrorists and weapons into the United States (an argument that has already been nicely packaged by Breitbart). Flynn can then present that argument to the president as not only the opinion of some reporters and advisers he trusts, but can also give Trump some dark, spotty reporting from the bottom of the intelligence well to show there is classified intelligence as well. With that, Iran has now attacked the homeland in the mind of the leader of the free world. Take it from there.
There will be greater concerns and arguments about coalition building and whether the military would buy into such spurious analysis, but at the end of the day, it is Trump who will be making the decisions. He will not care about coalition building. He will demand the military do as he asks since he is the commander-in-chief. There is even a case to be made that military personnel and diplomats being installed may support these sorts of moves.
It is a nightmare scenario for anyone who was caught up in the lies that led us to the Iraq War and who does not want to see more Americans die over fraudulent conflicts. If you thought Paul Wolfowitz and the team that led us to the Iraq War should have had more power and access to the president, then you are going to love Flynn being there. If you are scared, then know that we need to do what we can to make it politically and militarily impossible for Trump and his biased team to carry us into another war. It is not a question of if this will happen, but when.
The storm is gathering on the horizon.