National Security Advisor: Who Was Michael Flynn?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Michael Flynn (photo: Getty)

Former Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn was named in November 2016 by then-president-elect Donald Trump to head the National Security Council and serve as his National Security Advisor. The three-star general had been forced out of his previous job, as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), a year early because, as former Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote, he was “abusive with staff, didn’t listen, worked against policy, bad management, etc.” adding that he “has been and was right-wing nutty ever since.” Responsible for providing advice and counsel to the President on matters of national security, the National Security Advisor serves at the pleasure of the President and does not require Senate confirmation. Flynn recently suggested that he generally agrees with Trump on issues like using of torture, killing of terror suspects’ families, and a ban on all Muslim immigration.


Flynn’s tenure in the powerful White House post lasted all of 25 days. On February 13, 2017, he tendered his resignation after a behind-the-scenes controversy brewing at the highest levels of government exploded into the open, prompting bipartisan concern in Congress over Flynn’s alleged lies to government officials, as well as calls for an investigation.


The focus of the controversy were phone calls that Flynn had made to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak prior to Trump’s taking office as president, which included discussion of the sanctions against Russia that Obama had imposed that very day in response to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Flynn subsequently assured Vice-President Mike Pence that no such discussion had taken place, causing Pence to repeat those assurances on national television. However, a recording of the calls by U.S. intelligence officials proved that Flynn had lied. Trump was alerted to this in January by Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who warned that Flynn could be at risk of blackmail by Russian officials. Weeks later, when questioned by reporters, Trump denied knowing anything about the matter, but accepted Flynn’s resignation when the full story was disclosed in the press.


Flynn has claimed that his April 2014 firing from his DIA directorship was politically motivated by those critical of his views that the U.S. is “in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam,” and that “Islam is a political ideology masked behind a religion.” In a tweet on February 26, Flynn said, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”


In fact, The Washington Post reported that Flynn was being fired from DIA less because of his arguable Islamophobia and more because his ambitious scheme to expand DIA met strong opposition from the CIA and from budget conscious legislators on Capitol Hill, and it reportedly caused friction between Flynn and other senior intelligence officials. According to Matthew Rosenberg and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, Flynn demonstrated such a loose relationship with facts that his subordinates referred to his frequently repeated dubious assertions as “Flynn facts.”


Born in December 1958 in Middletown, Rhode Island, Michael Flynn is one of nine children of Helen and Charles Flynn, who was a small-town banker. Growing up, Michael Flynn worked at local restaurants and as a lifeguard, graduating Middletown High School in 1977. Flynn earned a B.S. in Management at the University of Rhode Island, where he participated in the ROTC program, in 1981. Flynn has since earned an MBA in Telecommunications from Golden Gate University, an M.A. in Military Arts and Sciences from the United States Army Command and General Staff College, and an M.A. in National Security and Strategic Studies from the United States Naval War College.


Commissioned an Army second lieutenant in 1981, Flynn became an intelligence officer, platoon leader, and then instructor in his early days. Flynn’s assignments included multiple tours at Ft Bragg, North Carolina with the 82d Airborne Division, 18th Airborne Corps, and Joint Special Operations Command, where he served as a platoon leader in the 1983 invasion of Grenada and chief of joint war plans during the 1994 invasion of Haiti. He also has served with the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana; and the Army’s Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.


Flynn served as the Assistant Chief of Staff, G2, XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina from June 2001 and the Director of Intelligence, Joint Task Force 180 in Afghanistan until July, 2002. He commanded the 111th Military Intelligence Brigade from June 2002 to June 2004, and was director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command from July 2004 to June 2007, with service in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He served as the director of intelligence, United States Central Command from June 2007 to July 2008, and director of intelligence, Joint Staff from July 11, 2008 to June 14, 2009. Flynn assumed duties as director of intelligence, International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan from June 2009 to October 2010. In January 2010, he co-authored a trenchant critique of American intelligence in Afghanistan that enhanced his reputation as an independent thinker. In it he wrote:


Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy. Having focused the overwhelming majority of its collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade. Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and the levels of cooperation among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers – whether aid workers or Afghan soldiers – U.S. intelligence officers and analysts can do little but shrug in response to high level decision-makers seeking the knowledge, analysis, and information they need to wage a successful counterinsurgency.


Flynn’s years in Iraq and Afghanistan were not without controversy. Most notably, the horrific examples of torture and abuse of prisoners that were carried out at Camp Nama in Baghdad took place while Flynn was in charge. For reasons of secrecy, it is difficult to sort out Flynn’s role in the illegal and inhumane activities. He is given credit for cleaning up the most extreme practices; what is unclear is whether he did so because they were morally wrong or merely inefficient.


From September 2011 to April 2012, Flynn was assistant director of national intelligence for partner engagement at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in Washington, D.C.


After being fired from DIA, Flynn ran Flynn Intel Group, a consulting firm that provides intelligence services for business and governments. The firm’s shadowy ties to the repressive regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, including Flynn’s election-day Op-Ed attack on Erdoğan opponent Fethullah Gulen without disclosing the firm’s being paid by a company with ties to Erdogan's government, have raised serious ethical questions, especially since the article’s pro-Turkey slant constituted a reversal in Flynn’s public positions on Turkey.


Flynn also took strong criticism for his paid attendance at a lavish event for Russian propaganda organ RT News, at which he was seated next to Vladimir Putin. In addition, Flynn sat in on classified national security briefings with then-candidate Trump at the same time that Flynn was working for foreign clients, which raises ethical concerns and conflicts of interest. Flynn has promised to sever connections with his firm.


According to NBC News, former State Department official David Phillips, who directs the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights, accused Flynn of being “bought.”


“He got caught with his hand in the cookie jar,” said Phillips to NBC. “The fact that he published that article on Election Day tells us he never thought his candidate was going to win.”


Flynn’s high profile role in the Trump campaign, including leading “lock her up” chants against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at the GOP convention, drew criticism from friends and former colleagues, including retired General Stanley A. McChrystal and retired Admiral Michael Mullen (a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), who urged Flynn to show more restraint, advice Flynn rejected.


Flynn is the co-author of The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies.


Flynn is married to his high school sweetheart, Lori Andrade; they have two sons. His brother, Charles A. Flynn, was promoted to Army Brigadier General in September 2011; Michael Flynn pinned the General’s Star on his brother. In honor of this, the State of Rhode Island and the Town of Middletown proclaimed it “Generals Flynn Day.” 

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Official Biography

Trump’s Pick for National Security Adviser Brings Experience and Controversy (by Greg Miller, Washington Post)

Michael Flynn, Anti-Islamist Ex-General, Offered Security Post, Trump Aide Says (by Matthew Rosenberg and Maggie Haberman, New York Times)

He was one of the Most Respected Intel Officers of his Generation. Now He’s leading ‘Lock her up’ Chants. (by Dana Priest and Greg Miller, Washington Post)

Intelligence Aide Flynn re McChrystal: “Everyone Has a Dark Side” (by Jim White, Emptywheel)

Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan (by Michael T. Flynn et al, Center for a New American Security) (pdf)

Saluting A Family Legacy (by Jan Wenzel, Quadangles)

In Secret Unit's 'Black Room,' a Grim Portrait of U.S. Abuse (by Eric Schmitt and Carolyn Marshall, New York Times)  


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