Barack Obama warned his successor against hiring Michael Flynn. It was Nov. 10, 2016, just two days after Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States. Trump told aide Hope Hicks that he was bewildered by the president’s warning. Of all the important things Obama could have discussed with him, the outgoing commander in chief wanted to talk about Michael Flynn.
The question of why Obama was so focused on Flynn is especially revealing now. The Department of Justice recently filed to withdraw charges against the retired three-star general for making false statements to the FBI in a Jan. 24, 2017, interview regarding a phone call with a Russian diplomat. The circumstances surrounding the call and subsequent FBI interview have given rise to a vast conspiracy theory that was weaponized to imprison a decorated war hero and a strategic thinker whose battlefield innovations saved countless American lives. There is no evidence that Flynn “colluded” with Russia, and the evidence that Flynn did not make false statements to the FBI has been buried by the bureau, including current Director Christopher Wray.
So if the Obama administration wasn’t alarmed by Flynn’s nonexistent ties to Russia, why was he Obama’s No. 1 target? Why were officials from the previous administration intercepting his phone calls with the Russian ambassador?
The answer is that Obama saw Flynn as a signal threat to his legacy, which was rooted in his July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Flynn had said long before he signed on with the Trump campaign that it was a catastrophe to realign American interests with those of a terror state. And now that the candidate he’d advised was the new president-elect, Flynn was in a position to help undo the deal. To stop Flynn, the outgoing White House ran the same offense it used to sell the Iran deal—they smeared Flynn through the press as an agent of a foreign power, spied on him, and leaked classified intercepts of his conversations to reliable echo chamber allies.
In March 2017, after seeing evidence of the Obama administration’s surveillance of Trump associates, Congressman Devin Nunes said it had nothing to do with Russia or the FBI’s ongoing Russia investigation, or similar Russia probes conducted by congressional committees. Nunes’ contention was difficult to make sense of at the time. Wasn’t everything about Russia and whether or not there was, as Congressman Adam Schiff said, more than circumstantial evidence of collusion?
In fact, as Trump prepared to take office after his 2016 upset victory, the Obama White House was focused on the Middle East. “Russia collusion” was the narrative that Hillary Clinton operatives seeded in the media and fed to the FBI to obtain a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign. After the election, the Obama team took it over and used it to hobble the incoming administration.
That Obama has publicly criticized the Justice Department’s decision to withdraw its case against the retired general shows how personal the anti-Flynn campaign still is for the former president. In leaking his supposedly off-hand comments to Michael Isikoff, a journalist whose work was central in pushing the Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy theory, Obama was effectively taking credit for pushing the larger anti-Trump operation that grew out of the anti-Flynn campaign. While the Russia collusion story was a handy instrument for many to advance all manner of personal and political interests, for Obama the purpose of Russiagate was simple and direct: to protect the Iran deal, and secure his legacy.
Obama and his foreign policy team were hardly the only people in Washington who had their knives out for Michael Flynn. Nearly everyone did, especially the FBI. As former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s spy service, and a career intelligence officer, Flynn knew how and where to find the documentary evidence of the FBI’s illegal spying operation buried in the agency’s classified files—and the FBI had reason to be terrified of the new president’s anger.
The United States Intelligence Community (USIC) as a whole was against the former spy chief, who was promising to conduct a Beltway-wide audit that would force each of the agencies to justify their missions. Flynn told friends and colleagues he was going to make the entire senior intelligence service hand in their resignations and then detail why their work was vital to national security. Flynn knew the USIC well enough to know that thousands of higher-level bureaucrats wouldn’t make the cut.
Flynn had enemies at the very top of the intelligence bureaucracy. In 2014, he’d been fired as DIA head. Under oath in February of that year, he told the truth to a Senate committee—ISIS was not, as the president had said, a “JV team.” They were a serious threat to American citizens and interests and were getting stronger. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers then summoned Flynn to the Pentagon and told him he was done.
“Flynn’s warnings that extremists were regrouping and on the rise were inconvenient to an administration that didn’t want to hear any bad news,” says former DIA analyst Oubai Shahbandar. “Flynn’s prophetic warnings would play out exactly as he’d warned shortly after he was fired.”
Flynn’s firing appeared to be an end to one of the most remarkable careers in recent American intelligence history. He made his name during the Bush administration’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers in the field desperately needed intelligence, often collected by other combat units. But there was a clog in the pipeline—the Beltway’s intelligence bureaucracy, which had a stranglehold over the distribution of intelligence.
Flynn described the problem in a 2010 article titled “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan,” co-written with current Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger. “Moving up through levels of hierarchy,” they wrote, “is normally a journey into greater degrees of cluelessness.” Their solution was to cut Washington out of the process: Americans in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan needed that information to accomplish their mission.
“What made Flynn revolutionary is that he got people out in the field,” says Shahbandar, who served in Iraq under Flynn in 2007-08 and in Afghanistan in 2010-11. “It wasn’t just enough to have intelligence, you needed to understand where it was coming from and what it meant. For instance, if you thought that insurgents were going to take over a village, the first people who would know what was going would be the villagers. So Flynn made sure we knew the environment, the culture, the people.”
Influential senior officers like Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal credited Flynn for collecting the intelligence that helped defeat al-Qaida in Iraq in 2007. In 2012, he was named DIA chief. The next year he secured access for a team of DIA analysts to scour through the documents that had been captured during the 2011 operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
“The bin Laden database was unorganized,” says a former senior DIA official. “There had been very little work on it since it was first captured. The CIA had done machine word searches to identify immediate threats, but they didn’t study it for future trends or strategic insight.” Flynn arranged for a teamUnited States Central Command, based in Tampa, Florida, to come up to Washington. The subject of their investigation was a potentially sensitive one. “We were looking for ties between al-Qaida and Iran,” says Michael Pregent, a former Army intelligence officer who was working on the bin Laden documents as a contractor. “We’re arguing with everyone—NSA, whoever else—telling them what we wanted and they kept saying ‘there’s nothing there, we already went through it.’ The CIA and others were looking for immediate threats. We said ‘we’re DIA, we’re all-source analysts and we want everything to get a full picture.’”
Just as the CENTCOM team was preparing for their trip to Northern Virginia, they were shut down. “Everything was set,” says Pregent. “we had our hotel reservations, a team of translators, and access to all of the drives at the National Media Exploitation Center. Then I get a call in the middle of one of the NCAA basketball tournament games from the guy who was running our team. He said that [CIA Director John] Brennan and [National Security Adviser Susan] Rice pulled the plug.”
The administration was, it appears, clearing space for Obama to implement his big foreign policy idea—the Iran nuclear deal. Another aide, Ben Rhodes, had said in 2013 that the Iran Deal was the White House’s key second-term initiative. Evidence that Tehran was coordinating with a terror group that had slaughtered thousands in Manhattan and at the Pentagon would make it harder to convince American lawmakers of the wisdom in legitimizing Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
What was the information about al-Qaida’s ties to Iran that Flynn wanted his CENTCOM team to get out? According to published news reports, the bin Laden database included “letters about Iran’s role, influence, and acknowledgment enabling al-Qaida operatives to pass through Iran as long as al-Qaida did its dirty work against the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.” One of those letters showed that “Al-Qaeda was working on chemical and biological weapons in Iran.”
After decades of anti-Iran campaigning, Republicans were expected to oppose Obama’s deal, but didn’t have the numbers to stop it in the Senate. What concerned the White House therefore was their own party. Senior Democrats on Capitol Hill were uneasy about the deal, as were large numbers of Jewish voters—more than half of whom identify as Democrats.
Jewish organizations offered two major objections to the deal: First, the outlines of Obama’s nuclear deal suggested that it might legalize a bomb pointed at the Jewish state. Second, in striking an agreement with Iran, the White House might normalize relations with a regime that embodies anti-Semitism.
In return, Obama confronted Iran Deal skeptics in his own party with a hard choice—either support the deal, or you’re out. There would be no room in the Democratic Party for principled disagreement over the keystone of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. Opponents were portrayed in harsh, uncompromising terms: They had been bought off, or were warmongers, or Israel-firsters.
In a meeting of Senate Democrats in early 2015, Obama had his eye on New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez when he spoke of pressures “from donors and others” to reject the deal. Menendez was offended. He said he’d “worked for more than 20 years to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and had always been focused on the long-term implications.”
The way that Obama framed it, it was only the money laid out against the initiative by lobbyists and donors that kept Americans from seeing how excellent his deal truly was. “If people are engaged, eventually the political system responds,” Obama told Jon Stewart. “Despite the money, despite the lobbyists, it still responds.”
Obama kept talking about money, donors, and lobbyists as if a secret cabal was tossing bags of dark foreign cash around Washington. What he was referring to was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—an American organization run by American Jews to promote America’s alliance with its most important Middle East ally.
AIPAC’s leadership trusted Obama to do the right thing. They described him as a great friend of Israel and assured themselves he wouldn’t put the Jewish state in danger by giving the bomb to a regime that regularly called for its destruction. But Obama didn’t trust AIPAC or the capacity of the American people to recognize the excellence of the Iran deal, which is why he kept the deal and its contents hidden from public view for as long as possible.
In 2012, the administration began secret negotiations with Iran. At the same time, the administration called off a multi-agency task force targeting the billion-dollar criminal enterprise run by Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. The administration told Congress that the nuclear deal would not grant Iran access to the U.S. financial system, but a 2018 Senate report showed how the Obama White House lied to the public and was secretly trying to grant Iran that access. The Obama administration had misled Congress about secret deals it made regarding verification procedures, and then secretly shipped $1.7 billion in cash for Iran to distribute to its terror proxies.