By Jenna McLaughlin, Feb 10, 2017, at The Intercept
IN 2010, THOMAS DRAKE, a former senior employee at the National Security Agency, was charged with espionage for speaking to a reporter from the Baltimore Sun about a bloated, dysfunctional intelligence program he believed would violate Americans’ privacy. The case against him eventually fell apart, and he pled guilty to a single misdemeanor, but his career in the NSA was over.
Though Drake was largely vindicated, the central question he raised about technology and privacy has never been resolved. Almost seven years have passed now, but Pat Eddington, a former CIA analyst, is still trying to prove that Drake was right.
While working for Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., Eddington had the unique opportunity to comb through still-classified documents that outline the history of two competing NSA programs known as ThinThread and Trailblazer. He’s seen an unredacted version of the Pentagon inspector general’s 2004 audit of the NSA’s failures during that time, and has filed Freedom of Information Act requests.
In January, Eddington decided to take those efforts a step further by suing the Department of Defense to obtain the material, he tells The Intercept. “Those documents completely vindicate” those who advocated for ThinThread at personal risk, says Eddington.
The controversy dates back to 1996, when Ed Loomis, then a computer systems designer for the NSA, along with his team worked to move the NSA’s collection capabilities from the analog to the digital world. The shift would allow the NSA to scoop up internet packets, stringing them together into legible communications, and automating a process to instantly decide which communications were most interesting, while masking anything from Americans. The prototype, called GrandMaster, would need to ingest vast amounts of data, but only spit out what was most valuable, deleting or encrypting everything else.
Then in the fall of 2001, four passenger airliners were hijacked by terrorists as part of a suicide plot against Washington, D.C., and New York City. The U.S. intelligence community faced a disturbing wakeup call: its vast collection systems had failed to prevent the attacks.
Yet, in response, the NSA simply started collecting more data.
The NSA sent out a bid to multiple defense contractors, seeking a program that could collect and analyze communications from phones and the internet. Science Applications Internal Corporation, or SAIC, won the contract, known as Trailblazer. Meanwhile, internally, NSA employees were developing a similar, less costly alternative called ThinThread, a follow-on to GrandMaster. ThinThread would collect online communications, sort them, and mask data belonging to Americans.
Those involved in ThinThread argue that their approach was better than a collect-it-all approach taken by NSA.
“Bulk collection kills people,” says Bill Binney, a former NSA analyst, who rose to be a senior technical official with a dream of automating the agency’s espionage. “You collect everything, dump it on the analyst, and they can’t see the threat coming, can’t stop it,” he says.
Binney built a back-end system — a processor that would draw on data collected by ThinThread, analyze it, look at whether or not the traffic was involves American citizens, and pass on what was valuable for foreign intelligence.
“Bulk acquisition doesn’t work,” agrees Kirk Wiebe, a former NSA senior analyst, who was trying to help convince NSA of ThinThread’s value at the time.
The analysts are drowning in data, and Binney and Wiebe believe ThinThread would have solved the problem by helping the NSA sort through the deluge automatically while protecting privacy using encryption.
But Binney and Wiebe say advocates of ThinThread hit every possible bureaucratic roadblock on the way, sitting in dozens of meetings with lawyers and lawmakers. In the meantime, Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA at the time, said he decided to fund an outside contract for a larger effort, focused on gathering all communications, not just those over the internet, as ThinThread was designed to do.
Additionally, while ThinThread masked American communications, Hayden’s legal and technical advisors were concerned the collection itself would be a problem. Some of Hayden’s senior officials at the NSA came from SAIC, the company that won contract to design a proof of concept for Trailblazer.
“A tiny group of people at NSA had developed a capability for next to no money at all to give the government an unprecedented level of access to any number of foreign terrorists,” Eddington says. “Instead that system was shut down in favor of an SAIC boondoggle that cost taxpayers, by my last count, close to a billion dollars.”
He argues the contract, and the “incestuous” relationship between the NSA chief and the contractor never received the scrutiny it deserved. “It was clearly an ethical problem,” Loomis said.
Ultimately, however, the NSA went with Trailblazer. Hayden rejected the ThinThread proposal because the intelligence community’s lawyers were concerned it wouldn’t work on a global scale, and that it would vacuum up too much American data. Hayden has continued dismissing concerns years later as the grumblings of disgruntled employees. Hayden told PBS Frontline ThinThread “was not the answer to the problems we were facing, with regard to the volume, variety and velocity of modern communications.”
In 2002, Wiebe, Binney, Loomis, Drake, and Diane Roark, a Republican staffer on the House Intelligence Committee who had been advocating for ThinThread, united to complain to the Defense Department’s inspector general, arguing that ThinThread, while still a prototype, would be the best surveillance system. The oversight body completed its report in 2004, which included major concerns about Trailblazer.
“We talked about going for the nuclear option,” Wiebe said, referring to discussions at the time about contacting the press.
But Drake went it alone, however, never telling his colleagues what he planned to do. Stories about the disagreements started showing up in news headlines based on leaks. The Bush administration in 2007 sent the FBI after the whistleblowers, raiding each of the whistleblowers’ homes who raised complaints to the Pentagon inspector general. Drake faced espionage charges after speaking to a reporter from the Baltimore Sun about the alleged mismanagement and waste in the NSA.
Though Drake wasn’t sent to prison, he lost his career in government, and now works at an Apple store. The question of whether ThinThread would have provided a better capability than Trailblazer was never resolved.
While ThinThread never made it to production, some of the analytic elements, minus the privacy protections, made it into Fort Meade as part of a massive surveillance program now known as Stellar Wind.
But there may be a way to settle the debate. The watchdog agency tasked with oversight of the Department of Defense completed a full investigation into the battle between ThinThread and the Trailblazer. The Pentagon inspector general published a heavily redacted version of that investigation in 2011; that report is now the only public record available, aside from the account of the whistleblowers who exposed it.
Despite everything that’s come out about its surveillance programs, the NSA still won’t release the full ThinThread investigation. “I don’t really know what they’re trying to hide,” said Loomis.
Loomis says he thinks those redactions were more for the sake of Hayden’s reputation than protecting real classified information. He eventually documented the saga in a self-published book called “NSA’s Transformation: An Executive Branch Black Eye.”
Drake told The Intercept in an email that efforts to uncover the Pentagon inspector general’s ThinThread investigation were a large part of his defense. Since then, the Office of Special Counsel concluded last March that the Department of Justice may have destroyed evidence that might have helped exonerate him.
In the meantime, however, hope is fading that the entire story of ThinThread will emerge from behind the government door of secrecy. “We’ve been trying for 15 or 16 years now to bring the U.S. government the technical solution to save lives, but they fight us left and right,” said Wiebe.
Eddington says the ThinThread controversy demonstrates the lack of oversight of the intelligence community. “The mentality that gave us this system is still in place,” he says. “We could see this become de facto permanent,” he said.
February 7, 2017 on Ray McGovern website
Former NSA Technical Director William Binney gave an excellent interview to WBAI radio’s Randy Credico on January 31. What Bill has to say should be REQUIRED LISTENING for those who feel a need for a cogent explanation, in understandable, non-technical language, of how NSA has been playing fast and loose with the Bill of Rights. Bill says the snooping has progressed to the point where the initials NSA now stand for “New Stasi Agency,” because NSA has become the East German Stasi (secret police) on steroids. Those who have seen the 2006 Academy Award winning “The Lives of Others” (Das Leben der Anderen) are likely to have a fuller understanding of the scarcely believable capabilities of today’s NSA and the effects that Stasi-like monitoring are already having on society. (For those who have not seen this film, it may be time you do.)
Randy Credico’s questions tease out the brutally succinct comments that are “typical Bill Binney,” dealing with questions – some of them naive — raised over recent months and years. Why should I care about “parallel construction?” for example; or “What, me worry? I have nothing to hide.” Binney tackles these head on. Ray uses some of the highlights – like “parallel construction” for further comment below:
Binney’s segment runs from minute 33:30 to 58:20. (It is preceded by an interesting interview of UK Ambassador Craig Murray – also worth a listen.)
Bulk collection, enabled by technology advances and “authorized” by secret “legal authorities,” effectively neuters the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, while violating the 1st (right to free association) and the 5th (right against self-incrimination), as well. Forget the large file rooms full to the ceiling with stacks of the paper folders used by the old Stasi and J. Edgar Hoover. Today’s data is accurate, timely, complete – and much easier to share and to store. Mind-boggling as it may be, NSA can “collect all,” and scan, read, store it all, as well. And it does.
Binney makes reference to then FBI Director Robert Mueller’s acknowledgement six years ago that the U.S. was collecting and storing information on U.S. persons. In March 2011 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Oversight Committee Mueller said: “We put in place technological improvements relating to the capabilities of a database to pull together past emails and future ones as they come in so that it does not require an individualized search.” And that’s not all Mueller acknowledged.
Under “parallel construction,” NSA shares data from its 4th Amendment-violating, bulk-collection to enable law enforcement to play fast and loose with the 5th amendment as well. Illegally acquired bulk collection is shared not only with the police, but also with the FBI, CIA, IRS, DHS, DEA et al. Using the data as tip-off, law enforcement then undertakes to use law-conforming police tactics to arrest, try, convict. Those aware of the illegal provenance of the tip-off evidence are prohibited from telling the accused, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, or jury about the information initially used to “construct” an ostensibly legal case.
Thus, as Bill points out, perjury is a major part of “parallel construction,” as well as infringement on the 5th amendment right to due process. He describes the program as “a perjury program run by the Department of Justice,” and notes that the indiscriminate, bulk collection of the wherewithal for the “parallel construction” was “approved” by a secret interpretation of Executive Order 12333, Section 2.3(c) which reads: “Information obtained in the course of a lawful foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, international narcotics or international terrorism investigation”
Parallel construction itself, though, is hardly a secret. Reuters revealed it in 2013. Ray wrote about it in June 2014 after he had a unique opportunity before a large audience at Georgetown University to ask former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who had been in charge of the “parallel construction” program, how he could legally justify it. Mueller explained that “various authorities” had been granted. The user-friendly audience moaned at Ray’s impertinent question. He was asking the FBI Director on what basis he justified violating the Constitution and the law; Mueller’s explanation citing “various authorities” seemed good enough for the vast majority of the audience.
See Something, Say Something; “New Stasi Agency”-style.
Binney comments on current NSA procedures requiring workers to tattle on one another if they see, or think they see, an insider threat. This does not make for a good working atmosphere among colleagues, Bill quips. As for ex-NSA whistleblowers, some current employees of NSA who have tried to contact people like Tom Drake have been summarily fired. Bill explained that this is why he avoids trying to make any such contact, lest it risk the jobs and livelihood of former colleagues.
Ray knows only a few still “on the inside,” so this is not a major problem for him. Many of his fellow retirees who are “back on contract” have not returned his calls or emails for many years now. Sadly, this includes a former colleague and friend who, with other CIA alumni, took part in the founding meeting of Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence (See: samadamsaward.ch.) and in presenting its first annual award in 2003). This colleague/friend is even older than Ray, but may be still “back on contract,” so he will remain nameless.) Another former colleague, now a senior CIA official, told Ray that, having bumped into him and exchanged pleasantries at wake for an analyst in Ray’s branch in the 70s, he now “had to report the contact to Security,” since Ray is now a “journalist.”
For those familiar with how much data can be put on a thumb drive, minds will boggle at how much more storage space is being built – like would you believe 2.5 million square feet right there with NSA and Fort Meade?
The Sam Adams Award
On January 22, 2015 in Berlin, Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence gave William Binney its 14th annual award, presenting him with the traditional Sam Adams corner-brightener candlestick holder in symbolic recognition of his courage in shining light into dark places.
His award citation read, in part:
“Bill Binney represents the patriotic side of a duel between two unequal adversaries: an exceedingly powerful and ruthless state and Bill, an official who would not break his solemn oath to defend its Constitution. … On both sides of the Atlantic we hear the mantra: ‘After 9/11/2001 EVERYTHING CHANGED;’ just like ‘everything changed’ after the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin on 2/27/1933. That event led many Germans into what the writer Sebastian Haffner called “sheepish submissiveness” — with disastrous consequences.
“As a young German lawyer in Berlin at the time, Haffner wrote in his diary one day after the Reichstag fire that Germans had suffered a nervous breakdown. ‘No one saw anything out of the ordinary in the fact that, from now on, one’s telephone would be tapped, one’s letters opened, and one’s desk might be broken into. What was missing, wrote Haffner, was ‘a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures and forces, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle, and dignity to be drawn on in the hour or trial.’
“These traits were NOT missing in Bill Binney. Nor were they missing in Edward Snowden, whose patriotic risk-taking opened the way for Bill and his colleagues to expose the collect-it-all fanatics and the damage they do to privacy everywhere.”
However, we learned at the award ceremony in Berlin that, ironically, it was the other way around; it was Binney who “opened the way” for Snowden – something low-key Bill knew but kept quiet about. It fell to Ed Snowden himself, as he was streamed into Bill’s awards ceremony, to set the record straight: “Without Bill Binney there would be no Ed Snowden,” he said.
Ed explained that it was Binney’s outspoken condemnation of NSA abuses that helped embolden Ed to blow the whistle and make available to Bill and others documentary evidence showing how close the American people were/are to what Ed called “turnkey tyranny.”
Waxing biblical, one might put it this way: Binney begat Snowden; Snowden begat – well, it’s hard to be sure. It does seem altogether possible, though, that Snowden begat the insider(s) who leaked to WikiLeaks the emails showing how Mrs. Clinton and the Democratic National Committee stole the nomination from Bernie Sanders; paid the Saudis back handsomely for their huge contributions to the Clinton Foundation; and told Wall Street it had nothing to fear from her “inevitable” presidency. It is a safe guess that Ed Snowden’s willingness to risk everything to show how close the U.S. is to “turnkey tyranny,” has already inspired – and will “beget” – still other whistleblowers.
Are There More Truth-Tellers?
Surely, there are some courageous patriots – and potential whistleblowers – still in the ranks of NSA and other intelligence agencies today. They, like Binney and Snowden – not to mention other courageous colleagues like Kirk Wiebe, Thomas Drake – may honor their oath to defend the Constitution against ALL enemies foreign and domestic and take some risk to thwart the slide toward Stasi-type tyranny.
A good way for them to begin would be to tell us what to think about former President Barack Obama’s parting shot about “Russian hacking.” Although the “mainstream media” missed this, at Obama’s last press conference (Jan. 18), he admitted that: “the conclusions of the intelligence community with respect to the Russian hacking were not conclusive as to whether WikiLeaks was witting or not in being the conduit through which we heard about the DNC e-mails that were leaked. (Emphasis added)
So Obama went out the door with inconclusive conclusions and admitted that there remains a gaping gap between “Russian hacking” and WikiLeaks. It appears that NSA does not know who gave the emails to WikiLeaks. Is Binney correct in saying that NSA would certainly know about anything “hacked” and sent over the blanket-covered network? Does this prove that leaking was involved, and not hacking – by the Russians or anyone else? This, after all is what Bill Binney – and Ambassador Craig Murray, a friend of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, and Assange himself – have been saying for many months.
Ray has been pointing out that, in professional intelligence analysis of highly technical issues, appropriate weight is traditionally given to highly experienced technical experts with a proven record for reliability – as opposed to reporters from, say, the New York Times. Thus, it remains a puzzle why even solid analysts like James Carden wait – as he did in an otherwise excellent recent article – until paragraph 45 (of 50) to mention Binney as author of what Carden labels “an alternative theory” on the Russian hacking story. Carden quotes from a Jan. 5 op-ed in the Baltimore Sun in which Binney says: “It is puzzling why NSA cannot produce hard evidence implicating the Russian government and WikiLeaks. Unless we are dealing with a leak from an insider, not a hack.”
Just before Mr. and Mrs. Obama got on the departing helicopter, Ray made a stab at decoding the ex-president’s Delphic remark, two days before, in: “Obama admits gap in Russian Hack Case.”
But Ray is no longer an “insider,” and technically (no pun intended) neither is Bill Binney. Bill quit NSA in 2001, as soon as he learned that the programs he devised were being changed to enable gross violation of Americans’ 4th Amendment right to privacy. Bill can give interviews to alternative media and appear in documentaries (see below), and Ray can be skunk at picnics – as when he asked questions of congressmen like Adam Schiff, ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee (See the following two-minute clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SdOy-l13FEg ), but, again, neither Bill nor Ray are “insiders” like the ones in whom Schiff says he places great confidence.
Needed: Another Patriot
Will an inside whistleblower rise to the occasion and clarify the evidence – or lack of evidence – regarding the all important gap – or a link — between Russian hacking and WikiLeaks? And, please, this time let’s not resort to the Rumsfeld aphorism that worked so well with the “WMD” in Iraq – “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
This is not to beat a dead horse; the horse is very much alive. Extremists like Sen. John McCain have characterized Russian hacking as an act of war, and a very strange bi-partisan assortment of neocons’/Republican Russia-haters’/Hillary-defeat-explainers’ knives are out for Mr. Putin – and for President Trump. California Congresswoman Maxine Waters is now suggesting impeachment proceedings based on the evidence-free notion that Trump assisted the Russian hacking that eased him into the presidency.
A Decent Newspaper Gets Burned; Kahl’s Kool Aid
The only recent sign of hope came this morning, when Germany’s leading newspaper, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, revealed that Bruno Kahl, head of the German Intelligence, was aping his U.S. counterpart, CIA Director John Brennan, late last year in claiming that the BND had evidence that Russia manipulated the voting for Trump, adding that the Kremlin is interfering in similar ways in Germany. Kahl read from the same script as Brennan and the U.S. “mainstream media,” telling the Sueddeutsche in November: “The perpetrators are interested in delegitimizing the democratic process as such.”
Apparently, the Sueddeutsche felt burned when it learned the truth after drinking Kahl’s Kool Aid and publishing it in November. Today the SZ was the first to publish the conclusion of a yearlong joint inquiry by the German equivalents of the CIA and FBI, which have been searching for evidence of Russian interference in Germany’s domestic affairs. “We have not found any smoking gun,” a German cabinet source told the newspaper.
Like the almost dead horse in Washington, however, the German steed remains kicking. Chancellor Angela Merkel has sent the two spy agencies back to the drawing board. Her office has ordered a new inquiry, this one led by a joint “psychological operations group,” to investigate Russian news agencies’ coverage in Germany. Ray did a short interview on this earlier today: (See: https://youtu.be/A8vjhA9oGzk )
The “Sources and Methods” Canard
As for the facile, all-too-familiar excuse – used by Adam Schiff, for example – that one cannot risk compromising “sources and methods,” there are many effective ways to protect them and still disclose key information, when the situation requires. Ronald Reagan, for example, insisted that a TOP SECRET encoded communication between Libyan operatives responsible for a lethal bombing in Berlin be divulged, in full knowledge the U.S. intelligence capability to intercept and decrypt such communications would be blown (for higher national purpose).
If potential whistleblowers need still more inspiration/courage, it will be readily available this month, as movie theaters begin to show “A Good American,” featuring Bill Binney and a handful of his courageous colleague whistleblowers – playing themselves. ( agoodamerican.org/ ) Oliver Stone has given the film high marks, describing it earlier as a “powerful prequel to SNOWDEN.” (Note to NSA employees: remember not to use your own credit card to purchase a ticket.)
We have now wandered a bit from the Bill Binney’s interview on WBAI last week. It may be appropriate to close with a 200 year-old warning from Goethe, a quote that Bill managed to slip into that interview:
“No one is more a slave than he who thinks himself free, but is not.”
“Niemand ist mehr Sklave, als der sich für frei hält, ohne es zu sein*.
Inspired by fringe theories about Islamic civilization, Michael Flynn is leading Trump down a dangerous path.
By PHILIP GIRALDI • February 9, 2017 on The American Conservative
The United States is adding new sanctions on Iran over that country’s alleged misdeeds, and nearly all of those allegations are either out-and-out lies or half-truths. It has a familiar ring to it, as demonizing Tehran has been rather more the norm than not since 1979, a phenomenon that has included fabricated claims that the Iranians killed American soldiers after the U.S.’s armed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. This time around, the administration focused on the perfectly legal Iranian test of a non-nuclear-capable, medium-range ballistic missile and the reported attack on what was initially claimed to be a U.S. warship by allegedly Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi fighters. The ship was later revealed to be a Saudi frigate.
Donald Trump’s national-security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, “officially” put Iran “on notice” while declaring that “The Trump Administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests. The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.”
Ignoring the fact that Iran cannot actually threaten the United States or any genuine vital national interests, the warning and follow-up action from the White House also contradict Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to avoid yet another war in the Middle East, which appears to have escaped Flynn’s notice. The increase in tension and the lack of any diplomatic dialogue mean that an actual shooting war might now be a “false flag,” false intelligence report, or accidental naval encounter away.
If it all sounds like a reprise of the baseless allegations and intentionally unproductive negotiations that led to the catastrophic Iraq War, it should. What “belligerent actions against the United States” Flynn was referring to, generally speaking, were not completely clear, but that lack of precision may have been intentional, to permit instant vilification of anything Tehran attempts to do to counter the hostility coming out of Washington.
Hating Iran has a considerable pedigree. I must confess to being of a generation in the federal government, like Flynn and others, where saying something derogatory about Iran was in the DNA, welcomed by all and sundry. I nursed a personal and specific grudge relating to the mullahs, as an Iranian government agent tried to kill me in Turkey in the 1980s. But more often the animosity was generic, sometimes expressed humorously at CIA Station staff meetings. I recall how one fellow officer who was undercover at a consular office would positively gloat as he described how many Iranian visa applicants he had turned down in the past week and everyone would bang their fists on the conference table, signifying their approval. Of course, we all felt fully justified in our Iranophobia due to the 1979-80 embassy hostage crisis, which was still very fresh in our minds.
But my rancor toward Iran has long since faded. I have Iranian friends and have come around to the view that Iran has much more been sinned against than sinned in its relationship with the United States. With the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015, I even began to believe that the two nations might well be able to resume something like normal diplomatic relations, which would benefit everyone involved. Alas, such hopes appear to be scuppered by a recent wave of Iran hysteria that bids fair to eclipse the Russian panic that has consumed the media and chattering class during the past six months.
I should have seen it coming. In December 2015, I was present at a conference in Moscow where General Flynn explained his concept of 21st-century geo-economic-political strategy. At least I think that was what he was talking about, though one can understand the frustration of the interviewer, Sophie Shevdernadze, as she tried to get him to explain what he meant during a largely incoherent presentation.
At the time I knew little about Flynn and his views, but I was particularly taken aback by a random shot he took at the Iranians, stating very clearly that they were responsible for “fueling four proxy wars in the Middle East.” He was presumably referring to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. The audience, which included a number of international journalists and genuine foreign-policy experts, became somewhat restless and began to mutter. I was standing in the back of the room and witnessed Flynn’s son, Michael G. Flynn, responding to the expressions of disbelief, waving his arms around and shouting “Right! Right! Check the intel!”
Two minutes later, the elder Flynn returned to the theme, mentioning the “terrible nuclear deal with Iran.” Now, I am accustomed to hearing nasty things about Iran, but they usually come from Israeli partisans who persist in falsely describing the Iranians as a global threat. It is in their interest to do so, and many pliable American politicians and media talking heads have picked up the refrain, so much so that a U.S. attack on Iran would likely be endorsed overwhelmingly by Congress and applauded in the media.
But I believed that Flynn was not particularly in with that group, consisting largely of neoconservatives, and his disdain for Iran seemed to be at least somewhat sincere in that it appeared to be rooted in his own experience as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). But I was wrong and should have paid more attention to the people Flynn was talking to.
Sources of Flynn’s Worldview
A long-time foe of Iran, Michael Ledeen believed that invading the country should have been the first priority in 2003 rather than Iraq. He believes that “everything traces back to Tehran” and that Iran manipulates both sides of the Shi’ite-Sunni conflict, leading reviewer Peter Beinart to note that his “effort to lay virtually every attack by Muslims against Americans at Tehran’s feet takes him into rather bizarre territory.”
Even as Flynn was speaking in Moscow he was collaborating with Ledeen on a book called The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, which appeared in July 2016. The book has two basic premises. First, the entire “civilized world” is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with a perverted form of Islam that has produced the phenomenon referred to as “radical Islamic terrorism,” a phrase that may have been embraced by the Trump administration largely thanks to Flynn. Flynn insists on the tag including the Islamic part because of his belief that the Muslim religion is itself intrinsic to the very nature of the conflict. In fact, he prefers to call Islam a political ideology rather than a religion and even describes it as a political ideology that has “metastasized” into “malignant cancer.” He once tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” linking to a false claim that Islam wants 80 percent of humanity enslaved or exterminated.
Second, Ledeen’s book views Iran as both the source and lynchpin of the massive disorder prevailing in the Middle East, with tentacles reaching throughout the region and beyond. It is itself a radical Islamic regime that uses terror as a weapon, a state sponsor of terrorism according to the State Department, and it also is an ally of movements like ISIS and the various al-Qaeda affiliates that it only pretends to be fighting. Flynn and Ledeen also assert that Iran is intent on developing a nuclear weapon and has a secret program to do so in spite of the 2015 agreement. It would use such a weapon to threaten Israel and other U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond, and is simultaneously developing ballistic missiles that could be used to deliver the weapons on target.
In addition to Ledeen, Flynn’s conspiratorial mindset goes back further, to his days with DIA, where he was well known for what his staff referred to as “Flynn facts,” things he would say that were demonstrably untrue. He once insisted that three-quarters of all new cell phones were bought by Africans and maintained that Iran has killed more Americans than al-Qaeda. Few dared to disagree. When he took over DIA, Flynn said to his senior staff that everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His subordinates would only be right when their views became the same as his.
DIA Director Flynn considered the Benghazi attack in September 2012 to be an incident in the global war against Islam. His initial reaction was to “prove” Iranian involvement, and he pressured his analysts to come up with the evidence, including shouting at them when they couldn’t support his conclusions. He told the analysts that Benghazi was a “black swan” event that needed more creative analysis to unravel.
Later, in testimony before the House of Representatives in June 2015, Flynn stated that
Iran represents a clear and present danger to the region, and eventually to the world. Iran’s stated desire to destroy Israel is very real. Iran has not once contributed to the greater good of the security of the region. Nor has Iran contributed to the protection of security for the people of the region. Instead, and for decades, they have contributed to the severe insecurity and instability of the region, especially the sub-region of the Levant surrounding Israel. … It is clear that the nuclear deal is not a permanent fix but merely a placeholder.
Flynn was eventually fired from DIA over his hardline views, in part because of his demonization of Iran and Islam. It would be easy to suggest that Flynn has only a tenuous grasp on what is really going on in the Middle East. Consider his assertion that Shi’ite Iran is in league with groups like al-Qaeda—which consider Shi’a to be a heresy and are willing to kill its followers on that basis alone. But the situation is actually much more dangerous than the usual Washington groupthink: Flynn and Ledeen have constructed a narrative in which the world is at war with a great evil and Iran is the central player on the enemy side. It is a viewpoint that is, unfortunately, shared at least in part by the new secretaries of defense and state and endorsed by many in Congress. This has consequently developed into a new sensibility about U.S. national security that is apparently driving the Trump administration’s responses to Iranian behavior.
The Danger of Escalation
Iran certainly exhibits assertive behavior regionally. But much of its maneuvering is defensive in nature; it is surrounded by a sea of enemies, most of whom are better armed and funded than it is. The nuclear agreement with Iran has considerably delayed any possible development of a nuclear weapon and is in everyone’s interest. It is not plausibly a delaying tactic to acquire a weapon somewhere down the road, as Flynn and Ledeen would have us believe.
Iran will be a very tough nut to crack if Flynn has his way and the Trump White House employs military force. Iran is roughly the same size as Alaska and has three times the population of Iraq, and the Iranian people have a strong national identity. They would fight hard, and using their sophisticated Russian-provided air defenses and Chinese missiles they could inflict major damage on U.S. air and naval units in the Persian Gulf region. They would also be able to unleash limited but nevertheless lethal terrorist resources. It would not be a “cakewalk,” and even if there were a military victory of some sorts, the world would be left with yet another power vacuum in the heart of Asia.
I believe that Flynn is a dangerous man, possibly even mentally unhinged on some issues. He thinks that the United States has the preemptive right to tell countries in the Middle East what is acceptable and what is not and is willing to exercise various repressive measures to compel good behavior. Iran, as a designated “problem state,” is consequently not allowed to act in support of its own national-security interests. Flynn justifies his hostility by claiming that Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism and instability, which is a self-serving lie. Absent diplomacy to resolve differences, the only interaction with Tehran from Washington has become the threat of economic sanctions backed up by military force. As Iran responds in kind this will become an escalatory cycle with no easy way out.
A better policy would allow Iran to diversify naturally without a constant stream of provocations that only serve to embolden hardliners. Iran’s young people, the majority of the population, are very pro-Western and even pro-American in their cultural affinities and sentiments. The Iranian population is closely tied to a large Iranian diaspora, with an estimated 1.5 million Iranians living in the U.S. alone. Threats of military action will strengthen the grip of the government in Tehran, producing hard responses and piling threat upon threat that will ultimately lead nowhere. Hopefully some adults in the White House cabinet room will at some to point tell Michael Flynn that it is time to sit down and listen to the facts.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.