Count me among those who enjoyed working with Flynn and admired him when he was Stan McChrystal’s intelligence officer in Afghanistan. I found him smart, funny, hard-working, committed to killing the people who needed to be killed, and—more importantly—not harming those Afghans just trying to survive a brutal civil war.
It’s hard to describe just how bad the intelligence picture of Afghanistan was when McChrystal took command in 2009. I joined his team for a brief period of time and was shocked to discover we didn’t even know who controlled Kandahar, the most important city in southern Afghanistan. Once the intelligence agencies and military surged resources into Afghanistan, the U.S. and coalition understanding of the country improved—and it wasn’t long before the CIA, in particular, was telling a succession of U.S. commanders lots of things they didn’t want to hear about how the conflict was going.
Mike Flynn, to his credit, didn’t wait for the cavalry to arrive. He instead reached out to a wide array of journalists, think tank researchers, and scholars to better understand what was going on in Afghanistan. Together with Matt Pottinger, a junior Marine intelligence officer and former Beijing bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal who was recently named the senior director on the national security council staff for Asia, Flynn authored a scathing report for the Center for New American Security—where I worked at the time—on what he learned about our failures.
But if I admired Flynn as an intelligence officer, you can also count me among those who have been horrified to hear what has come out of his mouth in the past several years, including the chants of “lock her up!” he led at the Republican National Convention this past summer. I am not quite sure what happened during his tenure at the helm of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a notoriously dysfunctional agency that employs some great talent but frustrates its clients (of which I was one until just recently). But people I trust who observed him say he took a straight-forward performance failure on his part and both internalized it—and explained it to others—as a policy disagreement with the administration.
Now that Flynn has parlayed his break with the Obama administration into his new job, though, he seems to be taking steps that could be very positive. First, Flynn is determined to shrink the size of the National Security Council staff, something, to be fair, the Obama administration also resolved to do but had difficulty achieving. As others have said, if you want to make a staff more strategic, cut it in half. Although it should be acknowledged that even a small number of people can also micromanage a process cutting the National Security Council staff could, in theory, both allow it to focus on the key policy decisions while empowering the departments and agencies in ways they could not have imagined during the Obama years. This seems to be the direction Flynn is heading—especially when it comes to the prosecution of the military campaign against the Islamic State. As several of us crudely told our own staffs before leaving the Pentagon in January, “Mentally prepare yourselves to not ask permission from the White House each time you want to wipe your asses.”