- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A few years ago, I took an action that may have helped bring to prominence Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who is now set to become Donald Trump’s national security advisor.
Let me explain. Around Christmas of 2009, I got an email from an American serving in Afghanistan. I’d been familiar with this person for some time and knew him to be thoughtful, tough, and dedicated. He was writing to tell me that along with two others in Afghanistan — one of them Flynn — he had produced a paper on how to revamp U.S. military intelligence in wartime. I read the paper and thought it was excellent and important.
I shared that paper with my then-boss, a smart young former Marine named Nate Fick. At the time, I was at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank, and Fick was its CEO and chief operating officer. I suggested that CNAS publish it. He agreed and, after some intense internal discussion about the unusual nature of the paper and its path to publication, made it happen in just a week or two. In January 2010, it appeared under the title: “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan.”
It began with the eyebrow-raising assertion that “eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy.” American intelligence officials, it charged, were “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.” That was some indictment, especially considering it came from insiders.
The paper’s authors explicitly acknowledged that they were making an end run around the Defense Department. They stated that they were issuing “this unconventional report, and [were] taking the steps to have it published by a respected think tank, in order to broaden its reach to commanders, intelligence professionals and schoolhouse instructors outside, as well as inside, Afghanistan.” That is, they were seeking the attention not just of the producers of intelligence but also of its consumers.
They wanted to pull back the veil of secrecy that obscured intelligence missteps. “Too often, the secretiveness of the intelligence community has allowed it to escape the scrutiny of customers and the supervision of commanders. Too often, when an S-2 officer fails to deliver, he is merely ignored rather than fired,” they wrote. The paper went on to make a series of specific recommendations about how to better collect information, integrate it, and use it. Overall, it called for focusing less on the insurgents and more on the people.
The paper made a splash. The then-defense secretary, Robert Gates, expressed a bit of puzzlement about why he was hearing from one of his generals through a think tank. A Pentagon spokesman said Gates, himself a career intelligence officer, had “real reservations about the general’s choice of venue for publication.”
The publication of the paper also had an unexpected consequence: It gave Flynn a new prominence in the world of intelligence. At a time of despair over our never-ending wars, there was a general speaking up and speaking out. He seemed to be a breath of fresh air, exactly what the military establishment needed.
Here’s the problem: I have reason to suspect Flynn may have had little role in actually writing the paper. On the other hand, he read it, saw that it was good, and agreed to lend his name — and rank — to it. His endorsement gave the paper a major boost. Otherwise it likely would have gone nowhere, and Flynn might now be a name unknown.
Instead, he went on in 2012 to be named head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. How much the CNAS paper had to do with this, I don’t know for certain, but I bet it played some role. At any rate, he didn’t work out well there, in the view of his overseers at the Pentagon. Barely two years later, he was moved out, though he insisted to me that it was at the time of his own choosing.
And then a president was elected a few weeks ago who expressed distrust of most American generals. He seemed to make exceptions for those who had been ousted by Barack Obama’s White House: Gens. James Mattis, David Petraeus, and Flynn. (There has been no word yet on a fourth who was pushed out, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.) I cringed when I saw Flynn chanting “lock her up” at the Republican National Convention. That was unseemly and also, for a career military officer, unprofessional.
I don’t know where all this leaves me. I don’t regret my role. As I see it, my task as a writer and journalist is to look out for new things. If you see something good, you put it out there. But you don’t try to calculate the consequences, partly because it is impossible, but mainly because that is not your role. In a democracy, the role of a writer is to tell the truth as he or she sees it and to let the people decide what to do with it. I did that with my book, Fiasco, and I did that in passing along the Flynn paper to CNAS.
But let’s see how I feel in a few years.
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images