JAN 27, 2015 • BY STEPHEN F. HAYES
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn in happier days, taking command of the Defense Intelligence Agency just two years ago.
Lt. General Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, blasted the Obama administration’s approach to the War on Terror in a hard-hitting speech to a meeting of intelligence professionals. “The dangers to the U.S. do not arise from the arrogance of American power, but from unpreparedness or an excessive unwillingness to fight when fighting is necessary,” Flynn said, in an unsparing critique first reported by the Daily Beast.
The Obama administration doesn’t understand the threat, Flynn said, noting that the administration refuses to use “Islamic militants” to describe the enemy.
“You cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists,” he said.
The administration, he continued, wants “us to think that our challenge is dealing with an undefined set of violent extremists or merely lone-wolf actors with no ideology or network. But that’s just not the straight truth.”
Flynn left government last summer, a year before scheduled. He did not provide a reason for his early departure, but sources close to Flynn told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that he was forced out after years of making arguments the Obama administration did not want to hear.
Flynn, and many of the analysts who worked for him, consistently reported on the global nature of the jihadist threat and the interconnectedness of the groups driving it. They mapped overlapping networks of al Qaeda and its offshoots and rejected arguments, pushed primarily by the White House and the CIA, that killing leaders of “core al Qaeda” inevitably meant a diminishing threat.
One key fight came over the analysis of the documents captured during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The CIA was responsible for the first scrub of the collection of more than 1 million documents and retained “executive authority” over the cache when it was completed. But the CIA stopped analyzing or “exploiting” the documents after that first quick and incomplete assessment and the Agency made no attempt to systematically examine and codify all of the intelligence included in the intelligence haul.
Flynn assembled a team at the DIA to do exactly that, but the CIA initially refused to share the documents. After a lengthy bureaucratic battle, DIA analysts were given limited access to the bin Laden documents and undertook an exhaustive exploitation. The documents provided the U.S. government with its best look at al Qaeda and its operations and challenges—from the inside. There were letters between Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, plans for future attacks, details about fundraising successes and failures, descriptions of relationships between al Qaeda and governments in the region. The documents remain unexploited to this day.
Derek Harvey, a senior DIA official and former director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence at CENTCOM, led the DIA team that exploited the documents. He recently told TWS that the U.S. government hasn’t “done anything close to a full exploitation.”
“A full exploitation? No. Not even close. Maybe 10 percent,” he said.
The Obama administration is choosing ignorance.
Sources familiar with the documents tell TWS that they include troubling information about al Qaeda’s plans to empower its franchises, new details about the many relationships with Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service and, significantly, support that the group has received over the years from senior figures in the Iranian regime.
In classified analyses based heavily on the documents, the DIA directly challenged the Obama administration’s claims that the threat from al Qaeda was diminished or fading. Flynn hinted at this in an interview he gave to James Kitfield of Breaking Defense shortly after he left government. “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,” Flynn said.
When bin Laden was killed, said Flynn, there was a 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.”
The arguments that Flynn and his analysts were making were unwelcome in an administration publicly arguing that the threat was diminished and that the wars were over. Those who challenged the administration’s claims were sidelined or, in the case of Flynn, forced out. Several sources described the efforts at the time as a “purge” and warned about the dangers of an administration so unwilling to hear dissenting views.
Today, of course, there is little question that Flynn and his analysts were correct. But the Obama administration isn’t listening. The president gave a State of the Union last week in which he didn’t even mention al Qaeda, in which he awkwardly characterized the enemy as “violent extremists,” and in which he pretended that United States was winning the battle against ISIS.
Ignoring threats doesn’t make them go away. Refusing to accurately identify your enemies doesn’t change their nature. And announcing false victories makes real defeats more likely.
As Flynn put it: “Retreat, retrenchment and disarmament are historically a recipe for disaster.”