The minute Gen. Mike Flynn decided he could fly solo in his interaction with Russian officials, his fate was sealed. This happened before President Donald Trump selected him to be his national security advisor or when he lied to Vice President Pence about his phone conversation with the Russian ambassador. It likely began in 2015 when he traveled to Russia to participate in a forum and he met with Vladimir Putin .
As a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency it’s not as if Gen. Flynn doesn’t have plenty of experience dealing with foreign intelligence officials (friendly and not so friendly), although I doubt he met with them alone. Furthermore, his career in U.S. Army military Intelligence wasn’t in counter-intelligence or counter-espionage. Why is that important? Because counter-intelligence trained people never forget that practically every Russian or Chinese government official, especially diplomats, are always spotting and assessing individuals susceptible to recruitment, people they can elicit information from or useful idiots they can use.
Understanding the breadth and depth of their efforts and the measures the United States uses to counter them makes one far more sensitive to the danger that exists when you appear on their radar. I suspect Gen. Flynn didn’t fully appreciate the risk he was taking, or he just became overconfident in himself. He should have known that any phone conversation with the Russian ambassador would be tapped by NSA and made available to the Department of Justice. If he had, he never would have kept the Vice President in the dark. I heard in a news report today that Gen. Flynn knew he was under surveillance. If that’s true, the first thing he should have done was immediately make the President and Vice President aware of what he was doing and saying, but apparently he didn’t.
Throughout my 43-year career in the military and as a Department of Defense civilian I’ve seen this happen too many times. A military officer or civilian official decides he has the skills or rank to meet with Russian or Chinese officials on his own for the purpose of improving U.S.-Russia or U.S.-China relations. He allows himself to believe that there is no requirement to take someone else along or report his contact to the FBI or his superior to ensure that nothing in the meeting or conversation comes back to bite him.
Three individuals I know were convicted and went to jail because of their contacts with Chinese officials. Others were harshly counseled or their careers were ruined. As the senior country director for China in the office of the Secretary of Defense, I met with Chinese attaches and diplomats on a regular basis. I even had one defect to me in my office. I either took someone along to lunches and meetings with them, or I reported my contacts to the FBI. I knew never to say anything to a Chinese official I didn’t want my boss reading back to me.
I have no doubt that Gen. Flynn is a patriot and had nothing but the best intentions. His service to America has been exemplary. We have not yet seen a transcript of the phone conversation between Gen. Flynn and the Russian ambassador, and I doubt we ever will given how it was obtained, so we don’t know if he gave the ambassador assurances about what the Trump Administration might do after the election on U.S. sanctions on Russia or if the subject only came up tangentially. Personally, I would be surprised if it was the former. Gen. Flynn has enormous staff experience and knew that staff officers don’t make such commitments to foreign governments. Despite accusations by Democrats, it’s also highly unlikely that President Trump told him what to tell the Russian, otherwise, there would have been no reason to lie to the Vice President.
Serving at the highest levels in the national security establishment is a high honor and rare opportunity to serve your country. In that sense, it can be extremely rewarding. At the same time it often is like walking on a wire over an alligator pit. When you slip and fall there is no forgiveness and there are no second chances.