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More About Russia and Less About Flynn?

The leak has narrowed Trump's options for dealing with Putin.

The story on the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is somewhat like peeling an onion, with each layer revealing something new. To be sure, I am delighted to see Flynn gone, both because of his clearly expressed desire to confront Iran and his inaccurate characterization of Islam. But Flynn’s departure will no doubt be exploited by many to justify increased hostility toward Russia, which is neither justified by circumstances nor in America’s long-term interests.

Ironically, I am not even sure if Flynn was ever really on the same page as his boss regarding relations with Moscow. The former advisor considered Russia one of a number of states that would be useful allies in the global war against “radical Islamic terrorism.” But at the same time, Flynn has been focused on a post-ISIS situation in which a transnational alignment of Iran, Russia, China, and other states all join a grand conspiracy to challenge American military supremacy and ultimately destroy the United States.

To be sure, there are parts of the Flynn tale that just do not make sense. How is it that an experienced intelligence officer would not instinctively know that a long-distance telephone call between a man relaxing at a beach resort in the Dominican Republic and the Russian ambassador in Washington would be intercepted by the National Security Agency? And knowing that, why would anyone lie about it, even if it did include some kind of discussion relating to the current round of sanctions on Russia, which is pretty unsensational material when all is said and done? Flynn certainly had a number of other discussions with foreign-intelligence officers before the Trump inaugural, including those of Israel and most likely Britain, without any scandal being imputed even though the talks must surely have included discussion of substantive issues. The difference is clearly the involvement of Russia.

The motivation for the leak of the apparent transcript of the phone call (or a summary of it) to the media must be considered. There are (more or less) four theories currently floating around regarding what happened and why. First, that it was vindictive members of the intelligence community (IC) getting even for Trump’s rude comments about them. Second, that it was a victory for the neoconservatives who want a national-security advisor who will be more openly willing to employ U.S. military power worldwide. Third, that it was honorable members of the IC acting as whistleblowers to expose the illegality and blackmail potential of Flynn discussing policy with a foreign diplomat before he was actually in office. Fourth, that it was carried out by Obama holdovers getting revenge.

I don’t buy any of those explanations. In this case, the leak came out of the National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, or possibly the Central Intelligence Agency (or all three) with the intent of bringing down a key political figure—thereby damaging a new White House and influencing policy formulation. It also appears to have involved multiple leakers, according to The Intercept. That goes beyond vindictive, vengeful, exposing illegality, worrying about blackmail, or wanting to change horses. This was a leak that had specific policy implications.

Which leads to the possibility that the story about Flynn actually has little or nothing to do with either him personally or his having been indiscreet. How it developed and where it is leading might actually be much more about America’s Russian policy. Taking down Flynn, whose actual views on foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran and Russia are pretty closely aligned with those of the neoconservatives and many in Congress and the media, would hardly appear to be a suitable objective but for the fact that his irascible demeanor made him an easy mark for discrediting the entire Trump project. Now that he has been dismissed over contact with a Russian, Flynn is the stick that will be used to beat Vladimir Putin.

Everyone who matters in the United States is now rushing to demonize Russia, even though Moscow was pretty much a passive player in what happened and has subsequently developed. The narrative that Moscow somehow influenced the outcome of the recent U.S. election has not completely gone away, largely fueled by Democratic Party rage over the final result even though no hard evidence has ever been produced to support the allegations regarding Putin’s interference. Some senators, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have always been prepared to respond dramatically to Russian initiatives. And the media has been on an anti-Putin binge ever since the fighting over Georgia in 2008.

Quite a lot of what is now taking place is feeding off of a shift in perception in Washington. Russia is no longer seen as an adversary or competitor but as an enemy. This was clear in the Hillary Clinton campaign’s insistence on punishing Moscow, and it resonates in most mainstream-media coverage of any and all developments in Russia.

Some suggest that the intelligence community is also on board with this sentiment, though that is often dismissively attributed to a desire for larger budgets and increased turf in Washington. But my own recent encounters with intelligence officers of the current generation has led me to believe something quite different—that many people in the IC really have come to believe that Russia is a major and very active threat against the United States, just like in the old days with the Soviet Union. I assume they have come to that conclusion through their understanding of developments in Syria and Ukraine, but I nevertheless fail to understand how they have adopted that point of view given the real limitations on Russian power. Whatever the reason, they believe in their Russophobia passionately, and I have discovered that arguing with those who are fixated on Moscow as the fons et origo of global chaos is futile.

To my mind, this makes the officials who shared the phone transcripts much more dangerous than conventional leakers motivated by some personal grievance or desire to right a wrong. I fear that the current crop of Russia skeptics are true believers of the worst kind and will do whatever it takes to disrupt any moves toward rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Exposing a highly classified sigint-derived phone call of a soon-to-be high U.S. official might reasonably be described as an extreme initiative.

So it seems that the destruction of Flynn, involving as it may have a number of leakers coming from all across the intelligence community, might be part of a coordinated effort to narrow the Trump White House’s options for dealing with Russia. Many in Washington do not want a comfortable working relationship with Putin in spite of the fact that a reset with Moscow should be the No. 1 national-security objective. There are already multiple investigations of Russia underway in Congress with calls for more, but exploiting the vulnerable Flynn might have been seen as providing the best opportunity to do something really disruptive before any change in the direction of foreign policy can take place.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.