In this exclusive exit interview with Breaking Defense contributor James Kitfield, the outgoing chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, talks about metastasizing Islamic terrorism, his struggles to reform intelligence-gathering, and the risk of lurching from crisis to crisis in an Internet-accelerated world. – the editors.
“Disruptive.” That’s how Michael Flynn’s enemies reportedly described him during his time as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a tenure that ends tomorrow – a year early – when the three-star general retires after 33 years in the US Army. Was Flynn forced out? The Pentagon said his departure had been “planned for some time” when it made the announcement in April. But Flynn had challenged the Obama administration narrative that al-Qaeda’s brand of nihilistic extremism had died with Osama bin Laden in 2011. He had bruised egos at the DIA trying to transform the 17,000-person bureaucracy into a more agile and forward-deployed intel operation, one shaped by the lessons he had learned as intelligence chief for Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan, working for the ill-fated iconoclast Gen. Stanley McChrystal. As early as 2010, Flynn made waves with a report, Fixing Intel, that said US intelligence could not answer “fundamental questions” in Afghanistan.
Flynn: No. I come into this office every morning, and other than a short jog to clear my head, I spend two to three hours reading intelligence reports. I will frankly tell you that what I see each day is the most uncertain, chaotic and confused international environment that I’ve witnessed in my entire career. There were probably more dangerous times such as when the Nazis and [Japanese] Imperialists were trying to dominate the world, but we’re in another very dangerous era. We rightfully talk about the last decade being the longest war in American history, for instance, but when we pull combat troops out of Afghanistan at the end of this year, it’s not going to feel like that war is over. To me, it feels like we’ll be facing a familiar threat and heightened uncertainty for a long time yet.
Flynn: I think we’re in a period of prolonged societal conflict that is pretty unprecedented. In the Middle East, we’re starting to see issues arise over boundaries that were drawn back in the post-colonial era following World War I. In some regions, we’re seeing the failure of the nation-state, and to some degree the disintegration of the [Westphalian] system of nation-states: Look at Libya, or Mali, or Nigeria. Because of a youth bulge, Nigeria will be the third most populated country on the planet in ten years, and [the Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group] Boko Haram is active in half of that country. Then look at what’s happening in Iraq and Syria.
What I see is a strategic landscape and boundaries on the global map changing right before our eyes. That change is being accelerated by the explosion of social media. And we in the intelligence community are trying to understand it all.
JK: Do you worry that instability will cause crises to escalate dangerously?
Flynn: Yes, because events happen so fast. Just consider the crisis in Ukraine. Information travels so fast now that suddenly everyone is asking policymakers, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Even the President, I believe, sometimes feels compelled to just do something without first saying ‘Wait! How did this happen? Who made this decision?’ My point is before we wade into the middle of a big crisis, we need to take a deep breath, and figure out whether it was prompted by a decision by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, or [Chinese President Xi] Jinping? Or is it provoked by some Russian general on the ground ordering his troops into Ukraine to gain a promotion, or some Chinese admiral looking to act tough by sinking a Japanese vessel? Because if a crisis escalates and we go to the gates in preparation for war, we had better do it for the right reasons.
JK: When you were asked recently at the Aspen Security Forum whether the United States is safer from the terrorist threat today than before 9/11, you answered no.
Flynn: I know that’s a scary thought, but in 2004, there were 21 total Islamic terrorist groups spread out in 18 countries. Today, there are 41 Islamic terrorist groups spread out in 24 countries. A lot of these groups have the intention to attack Western interests, to include Western embassies and in some cases Western countries. Some have both the intention and some capability to attack the United States homeland.
For instance, we’re doing all we can to understand the outflow of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq, many of them with Western passports, because another threat I’ve warned about is Islamic terrorists in Syria acquiring chemical or biological weapons. We know they are trying to get their hands on chemical weapons and use what they already have to create a chemical weapons capability.
Remember anthrax was used in 2001 [killing five people] and pretty much paralyzed Capitol Hill. If that anthrax had been dispersed more efficiently, it could have killed a quarter million people.
JK: You also said recently that terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden represent the leadership of al-Qaeda, but that “core al-Qaeda” is its ideology of perpetual jihad.
Flynn: Yes, and unfortunately the core ideology and belief system is spreading, not shrinking. Look at the unbelievably violent videos [of beheadings, executions and the destruction of religious places] coming out of Iraq just in recent days. I’ve physically interrogated some of these guys, and I’ve had the opportunity to hear them talking about their organizations and beliefs. These are people who have a very deeply-rooted belief system that is just difficult for Americans to comprehend. Just think about the mindset of a suicide bomber.
JK: When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria routed the Iraqi Army recently, the terrorists also appeared to have become much better organized, disciplined and led.
Flynn: These various groups have learned from fighting the U.S. military for a decade, and they have created adaptive organizations as a means to survive. They write about and share ‘Lessons Learned’ all the time. That was something Bin Laden taught them before he died. These proliferating Islamic terrorist groups have also for years been developing connective tissue to each other and back to al-Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Some of those connections are pretty strong. We’re not talking bits and pieces or nascent connections.
JK: After Bin Laden was killed and democratic revolutions swept through the Middle East, there was a belief in the White House and elsewhere that his radical Islamist movement would also die. Why did you push back against that?
Flynn: There’s a political component to that issue, but when Bin Laden was killed there was a general sense that maybe this threat would go away. We all had those hopes, including me. But I also remembered my many years in Afghanistan and Iraq [fighting insurgents].. We kept decapitating the leadership of these groups, and more leaders would just appear from the ranks to take their place. That’s when I realized that decapitation alone was a failed strategy.
JK: Did you ever feel like a lone voice in the administration warning that the terrorist threat was growing, not receding?
Flynn: I think we collectively felt that way. We said many times, “Hey, we need to get this intelligence in front of the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, the National Security adviser! The White House needs to see this intelligence picture we have!”
We saw all this connective tissue developing between these [proliferating] terrorist groups. So when asked if the terrorists were on the run, we couldn’t respond with any answer but ‘no.’ When asked if the terrorists were defeated, we had to say ‘no.’ Anyone who answers ‘yes’ to either of those questions either doesn’t know what they are talking about, they are misinformed, or they are flat out lying.
JK: What do you see as your legacy as DIA’s leader?
Flynn: We took ten years of ‘Lessons Learned’ from combat about intelligence integration, collaboration and focus on the field, and built five Intelligence Integration Centers to support our combatant commanders and warfighters. Despite all the madness going on in the world that we have discussed, those fusion centers have been stood up and are operating magnificently. I think we have greatly improved the capability of the Defense Clandestine Service, shutting down 20 nonproductive facilities and moving a whole bunch of people out into the field in conflict zones. I’m also proud of the fact that our relationship and partnership with both the CIA and FBI are far stronger today than in the past, which is largely a result of the personal relationships we have established over the past decade of conflict.
JK: What did you make of reports that you are being forced out of your job for being disruptive?
Flynn: If anyone was concerned about my leadership, I would have been out long ago. But to be frank, this is my third assignment at DIA, and I have spent five of the last ten years on combat deployments. If you go back over my career, everyone I’ve worked with during all my assignments will tell you, ‘Oh yeah, Flynn will come in and shake things up.’ That was actually the direct guidance I was given by [former Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta when I was given this job.
So accomplishing the goals I set required shaking things up at DIA. Maybe it did get to the point where I was a little too far out in front of my headlights. I had a meeting with my boss and the message was ‘it’s time for you to go,’ and my reaction was to salute and say, ‘Okay, no problem.’
I was fine with that because at the end of the day I’m a soldier, and I serve at the pleasure of my superiors. But I will also tell you that with all these crises we’ve been discussing the nation is confronting a dangerous era, facing multiple threats and challenges from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Islamic terrorist groups, you name it. If I wasn’t in there shaking things up, I probably wouldn’t have been doing my job.