Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn in happier days, taking command of the Defense Intelligence Agency just two years ago.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn in happier days, taking command of the Defense Intelligence Agency just two years ago.

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.

James Kitfield: DIA is tracking global crises from Ukraine to the Mideast to North Korea and the Western Pacific. Have you ever seen so many crises occurring simultaneously? 

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.

JK: Why?

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.

Comments

  • CLacroix

    Great interview. If anyone feigns surprise at anything happening with the ‘connective tissue’ he describes, really it is because they are ignoring what he and others are saying loud and clear.

  • sasdigger

    Lt. General Michael Flynn—Thank you so very much for your fine service. Thank you for all the worry you endured to save us a peaceful night’s sleep.
    I understand it was your duty, however, professionals in international know how recognize how steep the breach in vacuous substance extant critical threats may spiral uncontrolably lacking your hands-on insights.

  • originalone

    Good read. As with everyone who dares tell it like it is, “Early Retirement”. Considering all the different intelligence agencies that suck up $billions or more $$$, the whole system seems too unwieldy, but they sure have their fair share of top echelon heads.

  • specpapa

    To bad this guy is going away, I agree with every thing he said about danger. The Islamists don’t see the world or their actions anything but justified to do what ever is needed to control everyone. If I could take all my family and get off this world, I would do it now. World opinion is not going to restrain their actions, change their thinking or cause them to pause in their path of destruction. Prepare for WAR right here, because it’s coming, mark my words.

  • specpapa

    I am Curious. I never see anything about their activities in China.

  • silencedogoodreturns

    No one likes being told the Emperor wears no clothes. Gen Flynn got to where he is by supporting actual military operations in the field, not backslapping political buddies in the rear. It’s no wonder Washington didn’t want to handle him, but at least he got some time to do some good. He will be sorely missed by commanders in the field.

  • Marv

    Honest, prescient words from a great leader. I truly hope that our Nation finds a place of service for LTG Flynn in the near future.

    • john kerry

      How about getting him to run for POTUS? We have had 3 successive adolescent Presidents. It’s time we get a man with military experience who understands the real world.

  • jgelt

    As the list of areas the U.S. considers vital grows larger the threats against them will seem to mushroom. If the goal were simply self-defense of the U.S. the job of intel would be a breeze. Containment of communism was a relatively easy job. The questions were, is it communist and does of further the goals of communism? The countermeasures were infinitely easier. The U.S. has currently adopted foreign policy goals that are complicated, high risk and very unpredictable. The old U.S. foriegn policy tended to bring order where the Soviets were attempting revolution. Now the tables have turned and U.S. foreign policy brings disorder and war. The new foriegn policy has many enemies and uncountable fronts. Is the world becoming more complicated or are the U.S. expectations of how the world should behave becoming intractable?

  • John Page

    With respect to the steroidal effect that the internet and social communications have had upon the spread of radical Islam, we are still in the infancy of these new technologies. Penetration of those technologies, particularly in the third world, is early as well. ….. keeping in mind the mobility of gihadists with western passports together with a wide open southern border, Gen. Flynn’s fears may prove to be a best case scenario.

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    a great example of how working within any system blinds one to a larger reality … a company man, through and through

  • Doreen Smith DesJardins

    God bless you, sir. Be safe, not careful. May your retirement be either productive or peaceful, as you wish.

  • E Quinones

    Way to go sir! Telling it like it is!

  • Doc Realistic

    “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] Panettawhen I was given this job.”

    Learn how to read, folks.

  • http://www.phibetaiota.net RobertDavidSTEELEVivas

    Flynn was fired for trying to do the several right things, but he was no where near doing enough of the right things. I have published an indictment of Mike Vickers at CounterPunch, easily found by searching for “On Defense Intelligence — Seven Strikes.” I have also published Rebuilding National Intelligence — A 12-Step Plan and (earlier) Intelligence for the President — AND Everyone Else. Clapper and Vickers have overseen a criminally corrupt cesspool of technical collection that does nothing useful for anyone. Flynn was our last hope — and it merits comment that multiple attempts to get Hagel to pay attention, including a personal delivery to his home and a personal email to General Abrams (Hagel’s top military aide) failed. Hagel is either a prisoner being spoon fed a false reality, or he is complicit in all of this. My letter to Flynn, the bedbug letter I got back, and my email to Abram and personal note to Hagel’s wife are now circulating among select reporters — perhaps eventually Hagel will get to read his own mail.

    • silencedogoodreturns

      this reads like it was from someone who has escaped from a facility with padded walls.

  • Former DIA employee and USAFRe

    Good riddance.

    • alex

      I’m curious why you say that, do you have info about him?

    • http://www.liberallyconservative.com/ Don Anastas

      A COWARD hiding behind a blank profile. Did the General hurt your feelings or did you never really serve???

    • Chris

      And here is the voice of the Status Quo – and why progressive action within the machine of DIA and other government agencies will continue to be beaten down.

  • Richard Fontaine

    Obviously a great patriot who will be missed from his post serving our country.

    When will the American people fire those in our Government who deserve to be held accountable but have rigged the deck so they can’t be?

    This will not stand for long.

    • Guest

      What is also concerning is that great military minds like Lt General Flynn are being lost due to Obamas misguided ideology. Obama is weakening our military in both quality and quantity.

  • IndianaBruce

    Just as I suspected. Obama has his head up his a$$ and expects us to believe him when he tells us the world is safer and more tranquil now than in the past 40 years. I have a hunch that if another incompetent is elected in 2016 that we’re as good as screwed.

    • yukon57

      Amen brother amen! This administration could not find it’s a$$ in a mirror?

  • Orson OLSON

    A fine man, Lt. General Michael Flynn. Other dissenters have had the chains of “official duties” to contend with denial within government. May you find a perch, post, or write a book to achieve a more effective hearing for the findings from your career.

  • JIM16640

    We are merely seeing the results since 1960 of our enormous ignorance and moral weakness. Want to see the average American – watch Jerry Springer.

    • joe haire

      1960 saw the start of our current administration. People like Bill Ayers & wife Bernadine Dohrn (weather underground terrorists) tutore4d Barak Obama. Ayers’ father paid for Barrys’ education. All overseen by Frank Marshall Davis, a communist leader. The average American cannot be found on Jerry Springers’ show. The average American can be found in the ranks of the Tea Party. I was witness to the uproar in 1960 at UC Berkeley. The young marxists are now grown up but still fill the ranks of the anarchists. JIM16640. you need to look a little deeper into what made America great. Try building instead of tearing down!!

  • VK HAM

    Obama destroyed America and Europe.

  • luvourtroops

    Lt. General Flynn: Thank you for your service, and please run for Prez

  • Itsjusme

    Leadership 101: Know what you don’t know and surround yourself with those who do. But, if you are a know it all, it’s hard to listen to those who do.

  • Scott Brauer

    Nice to hear his honesty and insight. Now our troops and the world needs to act on it with this game changing tool that tracks down terrorists and criminals hiding in plain sight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuuvN8QHONU

    • grobbins

      80% reliability isn’t going to cut it

  • Mr. Billy

    As long as Political Correctness rules, things will only get worse, much worse, and very fast. The only way to deal with this threat is to pass laws that define Jihadi Islam as terrorism by its very existence. It’s difficult to differentiate between the vast majority of benign Muslims and the extremists, but it is possible if you outlaw Jihadism – the call for violent holy war against so-called “infidels”, basically anyone who is not a Moslem.

    Jihadis should face a zero tolerance policy in all Western countries. Intelligence agencies should have eyes and ears in all mosques and other meeting places and social networks, using agents who speak the language of the enemy. Anyone suspected of being a Jihadi should be arrested on terrorism charges and be dealt with outside the realm of normal civil law. Basically, anyone suspected of Jihadism should first end up in a place like Guantanamo Bay, and only then charged and dealt with. Protest demonstrations which feature anti-Western rhetoric should be dispersed brutally using extreme force, the leaders being arrested and immediately removed from society, never to return to a position of influence.

    Jihadis must be treated as though they were contagious with Ebola, isolated and removed from all human contact and totally cut off from society forever. They are as dangerous as flesh eating bacteria, and act in a similar way.

    Is this considered a “Fascist” proposal? Maybe. As I said, as long as Political Correctness rules, as long as it is considered “racism” to point out the real problem, things will only get worse, much worse and very fast. The civilized world has to deal with Jihadis as the body’s immune system deals with disease – a constant battle in which the body remains victorious as long as the immune system is healthy and without ridiculous moralistic constraints.

  • JohnPliler

    We have the low information voter, moron, dead person, welfare recipient, and those that vote strictly skin color vote for the idiot in the White House…

  • http://germans-and-democracy.com David Antipodes

    Historically, the “Westphalian state” is one that satisfies the dictum of that treaty “Cujus regio, ejus religio.” “Whose territory, his religion.” IS is a reclaiming of that, not its breakdown. What’s happening there, and in Islamist-contested arenas, is the war of the Ottoman succession, round 2.

  • Roger Reid

    I am thinking that we need to go back to electing people who have never done drugs. There seems to be a lack of maturity in all these folks who claim ‘a little experimentation as a youth’. For one thing they lie a lot!

  • dltaylor51

    Another American casualty of Obama’s war on America.

  • slobotnavich

    The simple fact of the matter is that radical Islam is behaving exactly as did the Christian Crusaders of the first and early second millenia. It’s a murderously aggressive religious movement that demands slaughter of the infidels and forced conversion of the survivors. The only way to control these loonies is a merciless response in kind.

  • Charles Gillis

    Gen Flynn, thanks for your service, Without guys like you we are screwed.

    • Wayright2

      Yes, don’t stray too far. You might soon be needed again by your nation.

  • Thinkingman2025

    His responses are right in alignment with his former job, and for the military, intelligence means knowing the who, what, how, & how many of every adversary.

  • joseph61

    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.

    Hmmmm , They were not trying to dominate the world ! We were and are trying to dominate the world ! They wanted to be the dominant stabalizing force in their backyard . Let us look who we helped dominate their backyard : We defeated Germany so that half of europe could be dominated by brtual and barbaric bolsheviks . We conquered Japan so that China and southeast aisia would be dominated by equally barbaric and brutal communists . Then we had to create the big lie about our former enemies : the Germans tried to exterminate the jews : silly and stupid story that to this very day zionists are trying the world over to make dogma . This stupid and despicable lie has risen to equal status of Christianity in europe and the US . Laws have been enacted in europe to protect this lie from any questioning . This in the 21st century ! Laughable if it were not so despicable ! Japan, who suffered the experimental devastation of two nuclear bombs mostly because the scientists working on the project wanted to see a “live” demonstration .
    So Japan must be made evil ! We still occupy Germany and Japan after six decades . Will this occupation ever end ? Gerenal Flynn , my question to you sir is : what about the destruction of our country by massive third world immigration ? You see it and yet you remain quiet . You were supposed to shake things up . Americans of european origin will soon be a minority in our own country ! Is that what you joined the military for 33 years ago ? To remain quiet while Rome is burning ?

    • grobbins

      Wow

  • larryx

    excellent interview.

    It seems that the Islamic component of the world’s problems is basically a awakening of fundamental religious Islamic notion of Jihad and Islamic supremacy that lay dormant for centuries.

    America (and the West) seem reluctant to address the problem in religious terminology since it would seem like discrimination against a religion which is politically incorrect. But the truth is that Islamic terror is merely an extension of the teachings of the Koran and is expressed daily by Immans as a fight for Islam against the West, chiefly America who is the devil to Islam.

    The new concern seems to be that many of the terrorists who today are fighting in the IS and carry Western and American passports will come back and begin to set up terror cells in the USA – a point well taken.

    I can understand Obama not wanting to call Islamic terrorists and their goal one of world domination, but that is really what it is and the sooner we (our governments) acknowledge it, the safer we will be.

  • AP Besser, Jr.

    Another casualty of the Obummer assministration! Thank you for your service, Sir!!

  • https://www.facebook.com/pages/Barack-Obama-can-go-Fuck-Himself/189559397759434 Fuck_BarakObama

    Welcome to Obama’s AmeriKKKa

  • Bigred37

    The government has been firing the generals and admirals that don’t march in lockstep with the present administration. WHAT SAY WE THE PEOPLE FIRE ALL
    OF THE PRESENT GOVERNMENT AND START OVER. NOT A BAD IDEA!

  • K.J. Pierson

    Never a better case for a general that should hand civilian leaders their ass. The only one that seems to actually get it that the great hope hasn’t replaced

  • Wardak08

    Interesting to wonder how a guy in such a positions maintains his sanity knowing just how dangerous the world really is and how close those dangers are to us. Good luck, sir.

  • carlos

    This administration sure is quick to fire people who don’t toe the line.

  • jay8clay

    He’d make a good commander in chief.

  • DE OPPRESSO LIBER

    Lt. General Michael Flynn- thank you for speaking up on this issue and more important, thank you for your service. Go figure , another high ranking officer, gets the boot. This seems to be the method of operation with this admin and this is not a safe approach in dealing with wars, terrorists or any other entity, that wants to bring harm to America, Her People and Her Allies.
    Unfortunately, we knew this a, as did most informed people.
    Sir, it is time, to wake up the military brass/puppets , being used by this admin, ASAP ,and have them , start telling the truth.
    America, is, desperately, in need, of REAL LEADERSHIP, and has been for over 30 years or more.
    Not the fake leadership , based on politics, cash flow , favors or special interest groups, but leadership based on morals, honor, ethics, values, and the COURAGE to speak up and do the right thing for the American People.

  • shmuelbar

    LTG Flynn is one of the more far-sighted officers in the US military. Exempt from PC he knew his job was to identify the threat and do whatever could be done to degrade it. He understood well Sun Tzu’s admonition “know your enemy”. To try to fight Islamist terrorism without acknowledging its deep religious roots is to not only not to “know the enemy” but to consciously pretend that he is not what he is. The world needs a strong and far-sighted American leadership – both military and political – no less than the US needs it and putting our heads in the sands will not do any good. As Trotsky once said: “you may not be interested in the revolution, but the revolution is interested in you”.