The Flynn Affair
Michael Flynn’s resignation as President Donald Trump's first national security adviser won't end the controversy surrounding the new administration's purported ties to Russia. Depending on which sources you consult, Flynn was either one of Vladimir Putin's stooges or a martyr to the "swamp"—the permanent bureaucracy in Washington. The truth is undoubtedly more complicated. And it's crucial that we get closer to it.
Flynn had a target painted on his back long before he ever joined Trump's White House. As head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon's main intelligence shop, he often clashed with colleagues and the rest of the sprawling intelligence bureaucracy. He was forced to resign from this post in 2014. But Flynn wasn't an incompetent intelligence officer, as some detractors have claimed. He often got the big issues right.
In 2010, when he was deputy chief of intelligence for NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Flynn coauthored a scathing report that concluded "the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy" in that war-torn country. That was correct—it is obvious from many independent sources that the quality of intelligence on Afghanistan has been abysmal.
In 2012, by then heading the DIA, Flynn argued against the intelligence community's consensus that al Qaeda was all but dead. He helped block a draft National Intelligence Estimate that claimed al Qaeda no longer posed a threat to the U.S. homeland. He was correct on that count as well. Al Qaeda wasn't nearly the spent force the Obama administration claimed. Al Qaeda's network has, in fact, substantially grown. The U.S. military bombed al Qaeda terrorists, citing their threat to the West, right up until President Obama's last hours in office and has continued to do so in the weeks since.
Flynn also fought to have Osama bin Laden's massive cache of documents and files fully exploited. The Obama administration wanted America's spies to stop combing through them, well before the analysis was completed. But Flynn and a handful of others worked to make sure that the intelligence was gone through thoroughly.
We've reported extensively on these intelligence battles at The Weekly Standard, especially the story of what happened to the trove of information collected in bin Laden's Abbottabad safe house. When it comes to the scope of the jihadist threat, Flynn was right. The Obama administration and the intelligence community leaders who supported the president's ideological agenda were wrong.
But that doesn't excuse Flynn's poor judgment with respect to Russia. In 2015, he gave a paid speech at an event hosted by Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin's English-language TV network. A picture of Flynn sitting next to Putin at the dinner has gone viral. RT programming is a steady stream of anti-American propaganda, some of it laughably inaccurate. RT, like Pravda before it, was created to traffic in fake news. And it was irresponsible for a former senior U.S. official to legitimize it.
Flynn advocated a closer alliance with Moscow in the fight against radical Islamic terrorists. Even if he came by those views honestly, the downsides to his preferred approach are painfully obvious. The Russians have backed Bashar al-Assad's murderous regime in Syria. Russia, Iran, and Assad are fighting Sunni jihadists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, but they are also massacring civilians. Hundreds of thousands of people have been slaughtered by Assad's killing machine. Russia's indiscriminate bombings have only added to the carnage.
Russia has also been advocating on behalf of the Taliban, which remains closely allied with al Qaeda. The Russians claim this alliance is necessary to counter the growth of ISIS in South Asia, but the Taliban-al Qaeda axis remains a far more dangerous threat to the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban-al Qaeda alliance controls dozens of Afghan districts. ISIS, while growing, is still relatively small. In any event, Putin's pro-Taliban position is not an example of anti-terror realpolitik. Instead, U.S. military commanders see it as one more way Russia hopes to undermine NATO, which has been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2001.