Trump’s Team Could Bring 9/11 Mindset Back to the White House
From restoring torture to expanding surveillance, the president-elect’s picks for national security advisor, CIA director, and attorney general favor a no-holds-barred approach to Islamist extremists at home and abroad.
President-elect Donald Trump’s choices for his national security team would return 9/11-era policies to the White House and back an all-out war on Islamist terrorists that will alarm U.S. allies, raise the risk of confrontation with Iran, and potentially jeopardize civil liberties at home.
The appointments unveiled Friday — with retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security advisor, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) as CIA director — represent a sharp U-turn to the mentality that prevailed after the 9/11 attacks. George W. Bush’s administration declared a no-holds-barred “war on terror” to justify expanded presidential powers — including the use of torture and unilateral military action. Trump’s new team offers plenty of echoes: Pompeo has defended the use of waterboarding, Sessions has argued federal agents’ shouldn’t be limited in their use of other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and Flynn has decried military rules designed to avoid civilian deaths as limitations that are crippling U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although Flynn’s appointment does not require confirmation from the Senate, the nominees for attorney general and CIA director will have to win approval from fellow lawmakers, and swift confirmation is by no means assured in the current fraught political climate following Trump’s upset victory last week. The president-elect ran against the Republican establishment and cannot count on unconditional support from the GOP majority in Congress, and Democrats have already vowed to block the Trump administration if it endangers civil rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Sessions’s nomination will come under close scrutiny due to confirmation controversies in the senator’s past over his racially tinged comments and over fears that he might make good on Trump’s threats to prosecute his Democratic opponent in the election, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Flynn displays a single-minded focus on the danger he claims is posed by “radical Islam” — a threat he compares to that represented by Nazi Germany in World War II. He argues that the United States must fully commit to combating and defeating the Islamic State, and other extremists backed by anti-U.S. regimes, and has accused President Barack Obama of tying the hands of the military in the field, appeasing Iran, and failing to recognize the magnitude of the danger facing the country.
“We’re in a world war, but very few Americans recognize it,” Flynn wrote in his book released this year, The Field of Fight. “[W]e have to energize every element of national power in a cohesive synchronized manner—similar to the effort during World War II or the Cold War—to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle.”
Flynn’s visceral response to the threat of terrorism recalls the Bush administration’s answer to 9/11 — the invasion of Iraq, the embrace of torture and unlawful detention, the curtailment of civil liberties — that deeply damaged America’s standing in the world and hamstrung U.S. efforts to fight terrorism. Obama, who won the 2008 election vowing to restore America’s tarnished reputation and who pledged to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and end torture, said in his first inaugural address: “Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”
The new administration’s apparent monolithic focus on countering terrorism, to the near-exclusion of other security challenges facing the United States, threatens to inflict additional lasting damage. The Trump team’s close ties with and affinity for Russia, in particular, coupled with a narrow focus on the fight against Islamist terrorists, could give Moscow a free hand as it redraws the map in Europe and seeks to restore its lost Soviet-era great-power status. Likewise, the new administration’s narrow focus risks pulling the plug on the already wheezing U.S. pivot to Asia, potentially ceding to China economic and diplomatic — even, perhaps, military — dominance in Asia.
Russia and strongmen in, Iran out
In describing a global war against a network of extremists, Flynn has blasted the Obama administration for failing to embrace “friendly tyrannies” like the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — ousted in 2011 — that oppose Islamist extremists. And Flynn has cheered Egypt’s new strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who as a general took power after toppling the country’s elected president.
Flynn has described Russia as a partner in the fight against terrorism — he’s worked for a Kremlin-backed news outlet and sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a gala — and portrayed the struggle as a life-and-death battle reminiscent of Bush’s famous warning to governments after 9/11: “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”
Some Democrats in Congress expressed grave concern over Friday’s appointments and said Flynn had shown a readiness to overlook Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine and its provocative intervention in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Flynn has “demonstrated the same fondness for the autocratic and belligerent Kremlin which animate President-elect Trump’s praise of Vladimir Putin,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. Schiff added the next president would be better served by an advisor with a “healthy skepticism” about Moscow.
As friendly as they are toward Russia, Flynn and other Trump national security nominees talk tough on Iran, in particular with what they see as Tehran’s role in underwriting Islamist terrorism around the world.
In his book, Flynn wrote: “[W]e must decisively confront the state and non-state supporters and enablers of this violent Islamist ideology and compel them to end their support to our enemies or be prepared to remove their capacity to do so.” His co-author, conservative commentator Michael Ledeen, has long advocated regime change in Tehran and traces virtually all terrorist threats back to Iran.
Flynn has excoriated the Iran nuclear deal, inked in 2015, as “wishful thinking,” and he shares the view of Republican lawmakers that the United States needs to take a more assertive stance with Tehran, rather than pursue a diplomatic thaw.
The Trump team’s rhetoric on Iran, coupled with comments by Republicans in Congress, has dismayed European allies that worked on the nuclear deal, which imposed constraints on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for easing some economic sanctions. European diplomats told Foreign Policy they are worried that an aggressive approach to Iran could backfire, prompting Tehran to redouble its bid for nuclear weapons.
James Jeffrey, a deputy national security advisor under George W. Bush and later an ambassador to Iraq and Turkey in the Obama administration, said Pompeo and Sessions share a “classic Republican, Bush administration worldview” that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But Flynn, Jeffrey said, “goes beyond that by seeing essentially no threat to the United States beyond this quote ‘Islamic terror.'”
Flynn “inflates that threat from a serious problem to an existential danger to the country and a conflict that we will be in for generations, as if it were the Cold War,” said Jeffrey, also a frequent Obama critic since leaving government and an FP contributor. “This is totally wrong, and it undercuts any rational discussion of the arguably more significant threats to the global order that Russia, China, and to some degree Iran are posing.”
A return to torture
Obama’s disavowal of torture early in his administration served as an important symbolic repudiation of Bush-era abuses in the aftermath of 9/11. Trump’s new national security team has flirted with turning back the clock on those reforms, moves that would damage America’s moral standing in the world.
In an interview with Yahoo News in July, Flynn refused to rule out a possible return to waterboarding and other tactics widely condemned as torture.
As a senator, Sessions voted against a measure to ban the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that included beatings, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and exposure to extreme temperatures.
Trump’s pick to run the CIA, Pompeo, has linked Obama’s torture reforms with what he believes is a weak approach to the war on terror. “President Obama has continually refused to take the war on radical Islamic terrorism seriously — from ending our interrogation program in 2009 to trying to close Guantánamo Bay,” Pompeo said in 2014.
Congress later enacted legislation reinforcing the prohibition on the use of torture signed by Obama as an executive order in 2009. Former intelligence, military, and law enforcement officers have insisted the harsh tactics are not effective, as detainees become desperate to say anything to stop the torture.
War on terror — or war on Islam?
Flynn, Sessions, and Pompeo will go to work for a president-elect who defined his campaign by xenophobic outbursts. Two of the appointees have said Islam itself — rather than a perversion of the religion’s teachings — is the source of extremist violence. That has lawmakers and civil rights groups worried that the next administration could jeopardize the civil liberties of Muslim Americans, fuel a rising trend in hate crimes, and endanger American security. Flynn himself tweeted this year: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”
“The most devastating terrorist attacks on America in the last 20 years come overwhelmingly from people of a single faith and are performed in the name of that faith,” Pompeo said in his 2013 congressional remarks calling on Muslim spiritual leaders to repudiate Islamist terrorism.
While Sessions has described Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the country as treading on “dangerous ground,” the Alabama Republican also said many Muslim immigrants have committed acts of terrorism and that “a lot of them believe it’s commanded by their religion.”
Flynn has accused the Obama administration of timidity when faced with jihadis he claims are inside U.S. borders plotting to impose sharia, or Islamic law, though he has cited no specific evidence. “If we cannot criticize the radical Muslims in our own country, we cannot fight them either in America or overseas,” Flynn wrote in his book.
Trump’s strident Islamophobic rhetoric stands in stark contrast with that of the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when the Bush administration went out of its way to clarify that America had no conflict with Islam itself. The rhetoric embraced by Trump and his lieutenants risks alienating Muslim countries aligned with Washington.
Counterterrorism experts warn that Trump and his planned national security team are playing into the hands of Islamic State propaganda, which seeks to portray its cause as a struggle for Islam. Talk of banning Muslim immigrants, maintaining the Guantánamo military prison, and returning to torture all fuel Islamic State recruitment efforts, as Trump’s campaign itself did before the election.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Flynn’s appointment “alarming” and said the retired general’s statements about Muslims are “profoundly un-American, as well as damaging to the fight against terrorism and national security.”
Fair winds for Guantánamo
To better combat terrorism, Pompeo, a three-term congressman from Kansas and former Army captain tapped by Trump to lead the CIA, has called for a “fundamental upgrade to America’s surveillance capabilities” that would roll back the modest reforms of such programs championed by Obama.
Pompeo has spoken in vague terms about an electronic dragnet that would collect a vast amount of information on its targets. “Congress should pass a law re-establishing collection of all metadata, and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database,” Pompeo wrote in the Wall Street Journal this year. “Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed.”
In that effort, Pompeo may find an ally in Sessions. When the New York Times revealed in 2005 the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program, Sessions defended the program. “It is not a warrantless wiretapping of the American people,” he said. “And I don’t think this action is nearly as troublesome as being made out here.”
Both Pompeo and Sessions support keeping open the most maligned symbol of Bush’s war on terror — the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo. Sessions has even defended the prison because it provides its detainees with “tropical breezes” they’d miss in the United States. He has also said he supports trying terrorist suspects in military courts.
In an April interview with the Topeka Capital-Journal, Pompeo defended the island prison as an essential tool for the intelligence community. “They need a place where they can interrogate those terrorists,” he said. “That is not the federal district courthouse or federal penitentiary — lawyers, constitutional rights, Miranda rights — no go. They need to have a place. Guantanamo Bay is a perfect facility to accomplish the intelligence collection.”
A shared hostility for the Obama administration
All three men picked by Trump — even the general who worked for the current administration — are united by a deep hostility toward Obama and Clinton, portraying them as undermining America’s interests and kowtowing to the country’s adversaries.
Flynn’s appointment by Trump marks a remarkable trajectory for a career military officer who spent two years working in Obama’s administration as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Flynn was forced out of the DIA after his ambitious reorganization rubbed many subordinates the wrong way and put him at loggerheads with other spy agencies. Flynn says he was fired for telling lawmakers that al Qaeda was gaining strength and for ignoring administration talking points in order to deliver what he considered a more accurate assessment of the threats facing the country.
The White House job will prove to be a very different assignment for someone who made his reputation as a deadly effective counterterrorism hand. His experiences at the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his time at the DIA, underscore that résumé, and it is unclear how that will translate to managing a large staff at the White House and shaping the country’s military and diplomatic strategy.
Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and NSA under George W. Bush and briefly under Obama, calls Flynn “hard-working.” But he notes that his expertise has been mostly at the “tactical level” on the battlefield, and successfully taking on the job of national security advisor “is going to demand that he up his game.” Although his two-year tenure at the DIA was marked by a turf war with rivals inside the administration, Flynn was in front of the rest of Washington officialdom in describing the threat posed by the Islamic State — once dismissed by Obama as al Qaeda’s “[junior varsity] team” — by issuing warnings to the White House and lawmakers.
Sarah Chayes, a civilian special advisor to two commanders of U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan who worked with Flynn, told FP the former officer is “energetic and incredibly hard-working — there’s always something happening around him.”
But as a manager, he was “unbelievably chaotic. No follow-through at all.”
Flynn has come under fire over his overseas consulting work, including reports that he sat in on classified briefings with Trump while continuing to work for foreign clients.
Pompeo rose to prominence after just a few years in Washington thanks to his outsized criticism of Clinton during the long and politicized investigation of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The Kansas Republican repeatedly subjected Clinton to aggressive questioning before a House panel investigating the attack.
But after two years of investigation, at the cost of $7 million, the House panel found no evidence of wrongdoing at the State Department or by Clinton in handling the attack, which left four Americans dead. Nonetheless, Pompeo released an addendum to that report claiming a cover-up.
Critics of the Republican-led investigation argue it was a partisan witch hunt intended to tarnish Clinton. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly used the events in Benghazi and the Obama administration’s shifting explanations for the attack as a way to batter Clinton. Pompeo’s appointment could install one of her principal congressional tormentors in the country’s most powerful intelligence post.
Though his hard-line views generally align with Trump’s, Pompeo, with degrees from West Point and Harvard, is generally described as bright and a student of national security issues.
“While we have had our share of strong differences — principally on the politicization of the tragedy in Benghazi — I know that he is someone who is willing to listen and engage,” said Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Hayden, who has harshly criticized Trump, said he was “heartened” by the pick. “This is a serious man who takes these questions seriously and who has studied these questions,” he said at a breakfast event for reporters at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank.
Sessions came out early for Trump, when most of his colleagues were keeping their distance or dismissing the former reality television host, and the president-elect has rewarded him with a job the Republican senator and former attorney has long coveted.
“He is a world-class legal mind,” Trump said Friday, hours before he spent $25 million to settle a suit against his private university facing allegations of fraud.
Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll