Retired General Michael Flynn was shitcanned from his job as National Security Adviser this week, which gives him the distinct “honor” of being forced out by not just one, but two Presidents! Yes, that’s a pretty impressive feat, and we need to look at this event from an objective perspective.
First and foremost, spying on foreign ambassadors is nothing new. The press has been reporting on this since before Snowden stole millions of files from NSA and handed them over to foreigners to peruse, and if you think we’re the only ones who spy on foreign ambassadors on our soil, I have this bridge.
U.S. installations abroad also remained a primary target for espionage, particularly by the Soviet Union. Twice in one year, the Department learned that the Soviet intelligence agency had seriously compromised security at the embassy in Moscow. In January 1985, the U.S. Marine Corps announced that one of its security guards at the Embassy had passed classified information to a Russian woman.
The fact that Flynn was talking to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak made him the subject of what is called “incidental collection.” It means he wasn’t the target, but since conversations are two-way things, he was captured in the intercept as well. That’s a concept that has apparently escaped House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who is shitting himself, because “an American citizen had his phone calls recorded.” For the record, no one was spying on Flynn. The target was Kislyak, and the collection on Flynn was incidental. That’s first and foremost.
First, he was talking to the Russian ambassador, who is an agent of a foreign power. Agents of foreign powers are acceptable foreign intelligence targets and the government could have a warrant to surveil Kislyak under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) since 1978.
Next, phone calls are wiretappable. Congress ensured that would be true with the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (CALEA).
Further, while wiretapping in the criminal context involves only recording when the targets talk about illegal activity, foreign intelligence wiretapping is comprehensive. All conversations are collected and important bits mined out after the fact.
So, no. This wasn’t a matter of Obama targeting Trump and trying to destroy him, as some conspiritards claim. It also wasn’t Obama operatives conspiring to target the Trump administration.
Fact is Flynn has been a concern to the Intelligence Community long before Trump decided to even run for President.
Let’s remember Flynn in 2010 was removed by current Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, then-CENTCOM commander, and investigated for sharing classified information with Pakistan. Pakistan! Not exactly a close ally. And revealing sensitive U.S. intelligence capabilities being used to monitor the Haqqani network to Pakistan is not exactly something that’s encouraged. This from the same guy who screeched “LOCK HER UP!” about Queen Pantsuit during the Republican National Convention for putting “our nation’s security at extremely high risk with her careless use of her private email server”
So while Hillary used her private email server “carelessly,” Flynn intentionally shared classified information with other countries – more than once – and never punished for it, because he apparently didn’t know better. Sound familiar?
Although Flynn lacked authorization to share the classified material, he was not disciplined or reprimanded after the investigation concluded that he did not act “knowingly” and that “there was no actual or potential damage to national security as a result,” according to Army records obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act.
Flynn was even bragging of the fact that he shared classified information he was not authorized to share with our allies Britain and Australia! “I’m proud of that one. Accuse me of sharing intelligence in combat with our closest allies, please.”
Whether he likes it or not, there are protocols and channels through which one has to go to release intelligence – even to our closest allies. Flynn, who was accused of telling allies about the activities of other agencies in Afghanistan, including the CIA, apparently felt he was above such constraints. He wanted to do it, so intelligence protocols be damned! He did what he did, because apparently he felt he was too important to follow procedures, and his mission was too critical to be limited by bureaucracy.
This was all long before Trump, as was Flynn’s now infamous trip to Russia to celebrate RT’s anniversary alongside President Putin and rub asses with Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). While Flynn was no longer DIA director, having been forced out by the Obama Administration, he received a DIA briefing before heading out to Russia and got paid for speaking there.
Of course, these “speaking fees” weren’t exactly for a traditional address. Flynn received an undisclosed amount of money for agreeing to be used as a propaganda tool by the Russian owned and controlled RT.
‘I was asked by my speaker’s bureau, LAI. I do public speaking. It was in Russia. It was a paid speaking opportunity,’ Flynn told the paper.
‘The gig was to do an interview with [RT correspondent] Sophie Shevardnadze. It was an interview in front of the forum, probably 200 people in the audience,’ he said.
‘I had a great trip. I was the first U.S. officer ever allowed inside the headquarters of the GRU [Russian intelligence]. I was able to brief their entire staff,’ Flynn said.
‘I gave them a leadership OPD. [a professional development class on leadership] and talked a lot about the way the world’s unfolding.
Flynn believes Russia could be an invaluable ally in the war against Islamic extremism. He said so during the RT forum. And he’s not wrong. The problem with sharing those views on a forum like RT is the optics. The forum took place after Russia illegally annexed Crimea, after more than a year of Russian funding of militant separatists in Ukraine, and after two years of the United States imposing economic sanctions against Russia for threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors. It doesn’t look great when the ousted director of DIA heads over to Russia and advocates for closer relations. It looks like a bitter former employee impugning his former boss’ foreign policy.
But besides that, we have no idea what was said in the GRU briefing. Given Flynn’s former penchant for briefing sensitive intelligence about IC operations “unknowingly” in a presentation in Afghanistan, the concerns about his trip aren’t unwarranted.
Again, this was all pre-Trump, so to claim that somehow the IC is targeting the President through Flynn is just disingenuous, given the concerns about Flynn’s continued flaunting and disregard for good intelligence practices, since long before the Presidency was even a gleam in Trump’s eye.
Once Trump won, and announced that Flynn was to be his National Security Adviser, I can’t blame old intel hands for freaking out a bit, given Flynn’s history. When Flynn spoke with Kislyak the day sanctions were announced, and then lied about the conversation to the Vice President, this became an even bigger concern. I said at the time that even if he didn’t mention sanctions – about which the President-Elect Transition Team was briefed prior to them being announced – the optics were worrying, to say the least.
Is it any surprise that a National Security Adviser to the President of the United States who doesn’t understand what he should and should not release to foreign powers, who doesn’t see that perceptions about him impugning U.S. foreign policy on an adversary’s state-owned media channel and chatting with said adversary’s Ambassador prior to a critical foreign policy announcement would be concerning as the leader of our country’s national security apparatus?
No, the IC is not trying to bring down Trump by targeting Flynn. They’re right to be concerned.
Which brings me to the leaker, whoever it might be.
The screeching conspiritards are right in one regard. Whoever leaked the information about the intercepts between Kislyak and Flynn did so illegally. While it’s common knowledge that we spy on the Russians (DUH!), releasing that information is illegal.
Listen I get it. Whoever leaked these conversations to the public had to have been paralyzingly concerned about Flynn. Hell, I was worried about having someone like that sitting in charge of the National Security Council and receiving sensitive information. Flynn was a profound concern for the IC, and whoever leaked that information had to have known that if caught, they would be prosecuted and would likely lose their job and their freedom, but was concerned enough to do it anyway.
And while identifying Flynn internally was legal, because his identity was critical to the analysis of Kislyak’s calls, the leak of the unminimized (unmasked) identity of Kislyak’s interlocutor to the public is and should be punishable by law.
Whoever leaked this information wreaked indescribable havoc.
They gave an adversary information about collection methods – signals intelligence – without which, we probably no longer have the ability to conduct surveillance on our targets.
They handed our enemies insight into the workings of the Presidential administration. Such insight is gold for our adversaries.
It gave Russia a window into the chaos in our national security apparatus.
It showed Russia our weaknesses.
This is unacceptable under any circumstances, no matter how concerning Flynn’s actions were, and make no mistake, they were worrisome.
But there was more at stake than just Flynn, and while we don’t know how compromised he was by the Russians, if at all, and whether his actions were due to arrogant stupidity or an actual desire to betray our country to the Russians, incalculable damage was done by whoever leaked this information to the public, and that cannot be ignored.
So while Flynn’s connections – and anyone else in the Administration who has had questionable interactions with the Russians – are a fair target for law enforcement and intel investigators, so are the people who are leaking this sensitive information.
Leaks are no reason to cheer. They’re a reason to be afraid.