Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad.”
Retired Lieutenant General Michael (“Mike”) Flynn’s fall from grace has been precipitous. Flynn was once an admired Army Special Operations officer who went on to hold one of the most powerful jobs in the world as President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser.
On Tuesday Flynn appeared in federal court in Washington DC to be sentenced for lying to the FBI. According to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s sentencing memo filed earlier this month, because of his extensive cooperation with investigators as well as his more than three decades of public service, prosecutors are requesting a minimal sentence, including the possibility of no jail time for Flynn. On Tuesday Flynn’s sentencing was delayed so he can continue cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
Flynn has spoken to prosecutors 19 times as part of his plea agreement, which underlines his value to Mueller as a witness because of his early involvement in the Trump campaign and the key role he played in the transition, all of which gives him important insights into the campaign’s precise involvement with the Russians.
How did Flynn’s long fall from grace happen? This story is based on interviews with multiple former colleagues of Flynn’s in the military, as well as with his colleagues in the Trump White House. (I have also interviewed Flynn in the past, although he has not spoken to the media while awaiting sentencing.)
An intensely hard-working officer and effective leader
During his military career few could have predicted the path that Flynn would eventually take. As a colonel in charge of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Flynn was a well-loved, effective team leader and an intensely hard-working officer who was constantly deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. Flynn used to joke that he lived at the JSOC base in Balad, Iraq, and took his vacations at the JSOC base in Bagram, Afghanistan.
The hours working for JSOC were brutal, 17-hour days every day of the week, but the mission was clear. Flynn and his boss, General Stanley McChrystal, understood by 2005 that the United States was losing the war in Iraq and that JSOC wasn’t configured well enough to destroy the industrial strength insurgency it was facing, which was led by al Qaeda in Iraq.
Al Qaeda in Iraq wasn’t a traditional military opponent operating with a top-down bureaucratic hierarchy, but rather a loose network of like-minded jihadists. McChrystal’s mantra became “it takes a network to defeat a network.”
To become a network, JSOC would have to get flatter and more agile. McChrystal and Flynn reconfigured JSOC so it communicated more seamlessly with all the components of the intelligence community and more quickly processed the intelligence gathered on raids so other raids could be immediately launched based on what was gleaned from the initial operation.
The results were startling; JSOC went from doing only four or five raids a month to doing hundreds every month, and al Qaeda in Iraq took a huge beating.
In 2012 Flynn, now promoted to lieutenant general, was appointed to run the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Flynn wanted to turn DIA into something more like JSOC with more analysts deployed “forward” in the war zones.
This was an excellent idea. After all, if you are supposed to be providing intelligence on a war, it helps if you are not working in an office 6,000 miles from where the conflict is actually happening. But DIA is a bureaucratic behemoth of some 17,000 employees, most of whom are quite happy living in the Washington, DC, area as opposed to, say, working for a year at Bagram Air Base in the windswept, mountainous deserts of Afghanistan.
The DIA desk jockeys pushed back against Flynn and his plans to deploy many of them to the war zones. Flynn had never commanded a giant organization like DIA. The first rule of bureaucratic politics is if you want to make big changes you need to enlist folks to help, Flynn didn’t make much of an effort to do this at DIA, which ruffled bureaucratic feathers and irritated his bosses at the Pentagon and in the intelligence community.
‘Flynn facts’ and conflicts with Obama team
At DIA, Flynn also began developing some eccentric notions. Flynn became convinced that the jihadist attack against the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 was orchestrated by Iran, which on the face of it made little sense since the Shia regime in Iran rarely cooperates with Sunni militants. There was also no evidence for this fanciful notion, but Flynn pushed his analysts at DIA to find a link that didn’t exist.
It was Flynn’s failures to distinguish between conjecture and truth that led analysts at DIA to coin the term “Flynn facts.”
When Flynn was running DIA, the Obama administration’s view of the terrorism threat was best encapsulated by President Obama’s statement to New Yorker editor David Remnick in January 2014 that the group that would evolve into ISIS was merely a “jay-vee” team.
Flynn had a far less sanguine view, warning that the global jihadist movement was not waning in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, as was then the conventional analysis. Flynn made this case publicly in congressional testimony on February 11, 2014, when Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, asked him if al Qaeda was indeed on the run, as the Obama administration was claiming.
“They are not,” testified Flynn.
A few months later, Flynn made a similar public statement at the Aspen Security Forum, an annual conference held in July in Aspen, Colorado, that attracts top US national security officials and the journalists who cover them.
CNN’s Evan Perez asked Flynn, “Are we safer today than we were two years, five years, ten years ago?”
“My quick answer is we’re not,” Flynn replied.
Flynn went on to say that focusing only on the declining fortunes of “core” al Qaeda, the group that had attacked the United States on 9/11, was to gloss over the fact that jihadist ideology was in fact “exponentially growing.”
As ISIS conquered much of Iraq during the summer of 2014 and imposed its brutal, totalitarian rule, it was clear that Obama and his national security team had underestimated the strength of ISIS, while Flynn had understood the threat far better than many of his peers. But Flynn had angered his two bosses, Michael Vickers, the overall head of intelligence at the Pentagon, as well as James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.
Vickers and Clapper thought that Flynn trying to shake things up at DIA was actually sabotaging morale at the agency, according to Clapper’s autobiography, “Facts and Fears.” They decided to force Flynn out of office a year early.
Flynn in the civilian world
Flynn seems to have been both bitter and embarrassed about the way he had been fired. In his own mind he was forced out because he wasn’t playing along with the Obama administration line that the war on terror was largely over, according to his autobiography, “The Field of Fight.” For Vickers and Clapper, it was much simpler: They fired him because he was a bad manager.
Either way Flynn, a highly decorated officer with 33 years service in the army, much of it in Special Operations, at the age of 55 had his career abruptly ended – and in an inglorious manner to boot.
Perhaps by way of compensation, once he was out in the civilian world, Flynn wanted to show that he was a rainmaker. Flynn set up Flynn Intel Group, which took on all manner of clients, a number of them with links to foreign governments.
Out of some combination of naiveté and arrogance Flynn, the maverick who came out of the “special” insular world of Joint Special Operation Command, did not play by the rules when it came to the lobbying work he did for some of his foreign clients, for which he was supposed to register officially as an agent of a foreign government. In Flynn’s sentencing memo, the Special Counsel says that Flynn misrepresented his work on behalf of the Turkish government for which he and his company were paid more than half a million dollars.
Flynn also began dipping his toe into politics. After meeting with Donald Trump in August 2015 Flynn came away deeply impressed. Trump was a good listener; he asked smart questions and he seemed truly worried about the direction that the country was heading, according to an interview Flynn gave to The Washington Post.
Flynn became a prominent presence on the Trump campaign and a vocal critic of Obama’s supposedly “weak” policies on ISIS. This, of course, dovetailed very neatly with what Trump was saying.
Flynn’s support of Trump was all the more important because he was the only person on Trump’s campaign team with any experience of America’s post-9/11 wars that continued to grind on at various levels of intensity in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Like Trump, Flynn thought that the United States could work with Putin and even sat next to the Russian president at a gala dinner in Moscow in December 2015 that celebrated the 10th anniversary of Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin-sponsored TV network, an appearance for which Flynn was handsomely paid. The Russians, through his speaking agency, gave Flynn $33,750.