Washington Monthly | Why the Intelligence Community Was Focused on Michael Flynn
Back in November, when President-elect Trump announced his intention to make Michael Flynn his national security adviser, I called it a catastrophic pick and, citing a May/June article by Michael Crowley in Politico Magazine, I noted that a senior Obama administration had said about Flynn that “It’s not usually to America’s benefit when our intelligence officers—current or former—seek refuge in Moscow.” In the same article, Crowley referred to Flynn’s attendance at the December 10, 2015 10-year anniversary gala for RT, the Russians’ state-propaganda news network (and his subsequent employment at RT), as “perhaps the most intriguing example of how the Russians have gone about recruiting disaffected members of that establishment…”
The idea that Michael Flynn, who had recently served as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, may have been “recruited” by the Russians was certainly of keen interest to the intelligence community. This was clear from anonymous quotes that came out at the time: “He was that close to a despot, an enemy to the U.S., at an event for the Russian government’s propaganda arm,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said at the time about Flynn’s attendance at the RT celebration.” Even what Michael Flynn was doing in the open was considered a potential crime, due to Flynn’s security clearances and his responsibilities as a retired officer of the U.S. military.
“As a retired Army officer, General Flynn was prohibited from accepting direct or indirect payments from foreign governments,” says the Feb. 1 letter signed by Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, along with five other members. “It is extremely concerning that General Flynn chose to accept payment for appearing at a gala hosted by the propaganda arm of the Russian government, which attacked the United States in an effort to undermine our election…”…
…Because Flynn holds a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance, he would have been required to report to the Defense Department any repeated contacts or payments from foreign nationals or foreign-owned firms as well as foreign travel.
These were all concerns arising from Flynn’s appearance at the RT gala. But when he started appearing on RT as a paid guest and parroting the Kremlin line on Syria and ISIS, that must have heightened the level of alarm. As I’ve already said, these actions were possibly criminal on their face, but given Flynn’s knowledge and potential to share sensitive information with the Russians (as well as the likelihood that, even in the best of scenarios, he was setting himself up for Russian blackmail), it would have been irresponsible not to open a counterintelligence operation on him.
We don’t know for sure that this was done, but it’s hard to believe that it was not. And none of this, so far, has anything to do with his later surrogacy for the Trump campaign. But we now know for certain that the Trump campaign has been the focus of a FBI counterintelligence investigation since July 2016. At this morning’s hearing in front of the House Intelligence Committee, FBI Director James Comey dropped the bomb:
“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”
There’s not much that Comey is willing to share about this investigation in either open or closed hearings of Congress, and that’s as it should be considering the nature of counterintelligence investigations. What should be absolutely clear, however, is that the intelligence community was highly suspicious of Michael Flynn’s loyalty and his judgment long before he was announced as the incoming National Security Adviser. When Trump appointed him, that must have been met with the highest level of alarm.
The Republicans and the White House have spent today trying to say that there was something untoward about the Obama administration widely sharing among themselves the information that Flynn was on the phone repeatedly with the Russian ambassador both immediately before and right after new sanctions were placed on Russia for interfering in our election.
They are also keen to argue that Flynn’s rights as a private U.S. citizen were violated because the intelligence was only gathered on him incidentally through a tap on the Russian ambassador’s phone. Under ordinary circumstances, information on a U.S. citizen that is gleaned in that manner should be tightly held (or masked) rather than widely shared within the government. And it certainly shouldn’t be leaked to the press.
First of all, we do not know for certain that Flynn was not the target of surveillance. He certainly should have been. If he wasn’t, it would only been out of an imprudent squeamishness about investigating a senior member of the incoming administration’s team. And that’s an admittedly tricky situation where the risk of politicizing the investigation is extraordinarily high.
However, given what was discovered, that Flynn was colluding with the Russian ambassador to undermine the current administration’s foreign policy toward Russia, it’s hard to argue that such surveillance would not have been warranted.
This is a crazy defense for the Republicans to make, and it’s only more nuts considering that Flynn was subsequently fired for failing to be honest about what he discussed with the Russian ambassador, and that we’ve since learned that he was acting as an undisclosed agent of Turkey prior to and after being appointed as National Security Adviser.
It should be noted here that the intelligence community, during the transition, tried to warn Trump about Michael Flynn. They leaked to David Ignatius of the Washington Post that he had been in communication with the Russian ambassador. Then, after the inauguration, the acting-Attorney General Sally Yates contacted Trump’s counsel directly and told him that Flynn had been dishonest with them about what he discussed with the ambassador and had exposed himself to blackmail.
Initially, nothing was done about this.
So, eventually the intelligence community leaked to the press the fact that Flynn had lied, forcing his resignation.
This was an act of national self-preservation, considering Flynn’s doubtful loyalties, but it is all complicated by the fact that Trump has stated matter-of-factly that he would have ordered Flynn to act as he did if he hadn’t taken the initiative to do it on his own authority.
To take the White House and the congressional Republicans at face value, we are forced to agree that intelligence officers who learned of Flynn’s subterfuge with the Russian ambassador should have kept that information masked and unavailable to all but the most senior intelligence officials, and that they should not have tried to warn Trump about him or explain that his lies had opened him up to blackmail. And they should have done this despite their strong suspicion that Flynn was already either a witting or a compelled agent of the Russian intelligence agencies who was about to (or just had) become our nation’s senior national security adviser.
This is the strangest kind of defense of Trump. It does throw mud in people’s eyes, but it isn’t sustainable. It puts more attention on Flynn, but it does it in his defense rather than in an effort to scapegoat or contain the scandal with him.
This will be a long investigation and muddying up today’s news cycle won’t be to the Trump administration’s advantage in the long term. They can’t keep talking about how Michael Flynn’s privacy was violated and have it mean a damn thing to anyone. Eventually, we may learn that even this limited and unconvincing defense is based on the faulty premise that the collection of Flynn was only incidental. As I’ve said, he was a counterintelligence concern before he began his surrogacy for Trump, and it’s doubtful that he ever ceased being a counterintelligence concern considering that the FBI began investigating the campaign in July.