Mike Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and short-lived National Security Advisor under President Trump, has found himself at the center of allegations levied at the Trump Administration regarding Russian collusion in the 2016 Presidential election. Recent revelations regarding payments totaling more than a half million dollars given to Flynn by companies representing foreign governments have made it clear that Flynn was, at best, a poor choice for National Security Advisor – but the pressing question remains: how did a guy with such brazen ties to political opponents of the United States find himself in such an influential and powerful position within our federal government?
If you ask Trump’s team, we have Barrack Obama to blame. According to multiple sources, the Trump White House did little vetting of Flynn (or possibly even none at all) because his security clearance had been renewed as recently as 2016 under the Obama Administration. That renewal was likely tied to Flynn’s management of the Flynn Intel Group, and wouldn’t be subject to renewal once more until 2021.
“And when they say we didn’t vet, well Obama I guess didn’t vet, because he was approved at the highest level of security by the Obama administration,” President Trump said. “So when he came into our administration, for a short period of time, he came in, he was already approved by the Obama administration and he had years left on that approval.”
Sean Spicer echoed the president’s sentiments in a press briefing soon thereafter: “When General Flynn came into the White House, he had an active security clearance that was issued during the Obama administration with all the information that’s being discussed that occurred in 2015. Why would you rerun a background check on someone who was the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency that had and did maintain a high-level security clearance?”
Now, this kind of responsibility deflection may seem like politics as usual to some, but when looking at this from an objective, nuts and bolts perspective, it certainly isn’t the sort of excuse you want to hear from the leader of the free world when he’s questioned about accidentally appointing a seriously compromised individual to his inner circle. If you’re already a card-carrying member of the Trump-bashing club, this boils down to a simple “either/or” scenario: either Trump failed to thoroughly vet Flynn and is now blaming Obama, or he knew about Flynn’s shady dealings and simply approved of it.
As the President of the United States, this error (or intentional negligence) does fall at the feet of President Trump… but that doesn’t mean President Obama’s hands are clean; if anything, this situation speaks to a serious issue in culture and systemic procedure throughout presidential administrations on either side of the ideological fence. National security is not a partisan issue, no matter how hard the media, and some politicians, may try to construe it as such.
Flynn was indeed fired by Obama in 2014 from his role as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, though according to sources from within the Administration, the termination had nothing to do with foreign collusion. Reports from within the Obama White House seem to indicate that Flynn was fired for his “chaotic” and “toxic” management style and penchant for believing in conspiracy theories. Of course, because Flynn was critical of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, that could easily be construed as the sour grapes of an employer that couldn’t see eye to eye with his employee, which is almost certainly how Donald Trump saw it when he invited Flynn to join his campaign staff.
That means that Obama’s now well-reported warning to Trump about Flynn not being well suited for such a high-level position probably played in Trump’s mind as more of Obama’s condescension regarding the transition of power from his administration to Trump’s. While it’s easy to criticize Trump’s bedside manner when it comes to dealing with other important leaders, it’s also important to remember that President Obama has oft been accused of coming off as “professorial:” in other words, he talks down to people. Donald Trump, a successful businessman that is accustomed to being the most influential person in the room, would likely be less apt to heed Obama’s warnings about a man he’d grown to be friends with if delivered as a part of a conversation that included lectures about other political hot spots the two couldn’t see eye to eye on.
Ultimately, playing the presidential blame game lays some of the guilt for Flynn’s ability to accept huge sums of money from foreign governments and still retain significant influence over American national security on both Trump and Obama. Trump should have had Flynn independently vetted, or at least required supplemental records covering the time since his last security investigation, and Obama’s administration shouldn’t have renewed Flynn’s clearance if he was already acting as a paid lobbyist for a man who is actively working to fashion his own totalitarian regime at the expense of the Turkish people’s democracy. Of course, if playing this game, more of the weight must fall on Trump’s team, as they didn’t need to wait for an investigation to inform them of Flynn’s issues by inauguration day – it was already in all the headlines.
This blame game, however, doesn’t speak to the real issue at the heart of this: President Obama and President Trump both saw signs that Flynn wasn’t on the level, but relied on the security investigation infrastructure to disqualify him if it was appropriate… and there you have the real problem.
Mike Flynn, a man who was photographed sitting next to Vladimir Putin at a Gala celebrating the Kremlin-backed news agency RT (which is widely considered to be nothing more than a means of propaganda dispersal) only months before moving into Trump’s White House, was appointed to an office without any sort of Senate oversight that involves being aware of America’s most important national security secrets. A man who received over $530,000 from Turkey to represent their interests, and who released an OP-ED in “The Hill” on election day calling the Turkish president “a crucial ally against ISIS,” was able to walk into the White House unobstructed by policy, security, or regulation.
That’s not a simple failure on behalf of the president, that’s a failure of the security infrastructure at our highest levels of leadership.
It all comes back to a single federal form that many of SOFREP’s readers are likely familiar with: the SF-86. The SF-86, or Questionnaire for National Security Positions, requires that you divulge all sorts of information about yourself for the purposes of an investigation into your background. Those of you who have applied for Secret or Top Secret clearances can likely attest to how thorough they expect you to be, and likely have some stories about the interviews with your family and friends that followed. While seemingly arduous at the time, you may be surprised to learn that same process you went through as a private is also all that stands in the way of a man with foreign ties like Flynn and a coveted seat on the President’s couch during classified national security briefings. Worse still? The investigation doesn’t really delve into anything you don’t put down on the form yourself – so by omitting these payments on his paperwork, Flynn effectively ensured they wouldn’t come to light unless the press, or other insiders, forced the issue, or it came to light during the interviews of contacts he listed himself.
“When the Bureau does an background investigation, they don’t get transactional-level data on your financial,” said Aaron Arnold, an FBI counterintelligence analyst from 2008 to 2013. “In fact, the only financial data they collect when doing the background investigation is basically a credit check.”
“No one from the FBI is going around making sure that every ex-government executive is properly registering their activities,” added Arnold. “The system is somewhat based on self-reporting.”
“The biggest thing, I have to tell you, that we look for is not the financial stuff, but it’s in the interviews that we do from the people that the person has put down as relatives or acquaintances or recommendations,” Joe Navarro, a retired special agent who conducted so-called Special Presidential Investigations, or SPINs, of Cabinet appointees during the Reagan administration, explained. “We usually only check what the person has put down.”
If, during the course of the investigation something were to come up, it would be reported to the White House who ultimately makes the determination as to whether or not an appointee is cleared, however, if another investigation is ongoing within the department of the FBI that handles Counter Intelligence operations, there’s little chance the two investigations would cross paths due to compartmentalization within the Bureau.
“The CI [Counter Intelligence] investigation would be separate from the White House security and background investigation, which would have occurred after Flynn was named as [national security adviser] in November 2016,” says Andrew Bringuel, who retired last month after 27 years in the FBI. “Any derogatory evidence would go to the security division for follow-up and adjudication.”
Effectively, any counter-intelligence investigation into Flynn wouldn’t have raised a red flag on the other side of the Bureau when his background check was going through or after it was executed, and subsequent investigations would have focused on the possibility of bringing up criminal charges without any consideration for moving to suspend his active clearance. Combine this issue with the manner in which National Security Advisors are appointed (directly by the President without any Senate hearing or investigation) and you have a situation primed for shady characters with international ties and great intelligence credentials like Flynn to thrive – regardless of who is in the White House.
At any number of levels, Flynn’s dealings could have, and should have, made him subject to suspension or revocation of his security clearance, which would have effectively ended his tenure as Trump’s National Security Advisor. The problem is less about a sitting president ignoring warnings from political opponents about one of his appointees, and more about lacking a system in place to investigate and substantiate such rumors – despite most people in the White House, and the rest of the country, thinking a background check would do just that.
By sinking its claws deeper and deeper into the blame game, the media is missing the forest for the trees. Any president could potentially find themselves with compromised individuals in their cabinet so long as the process vetting them amounts to little more than shrugging and assuming another person, agency, or branch would have taken action if things weren’t on the level.
The position of National Security Advisor, integral and encompassing as it is, should be subject to Senate confirmation like many other presidential cabinet appointments. These hearings may be arduous and political, but they do serve to weed out potentially traumatic appointments like Flynn. Just ask Andy Puzder whose nomination for labor secretary under Trump fell apart in his Senate hearing, Tom Daschle whose nomination for secretary of health and human services under Obama collapsed, or Linda Chavez’s bid for secretary of labor under George W. Bush that couldn’t survive the Senate either.
Whether or not Flynn’s ties to Russia and Turkey will ultimately expose other forms of collusion from within the Trump team and foreign governments is yet to be determined, but in regard to Presidential appointments and the policies that manage them, it doesn’t matter.
The process in which national security advisors are appointed needs to be changed, or we’ll remain vulnerable to this kind of foreign influence no matter who is in the White House.
Images courtesy of AP/Getty