On August 7, 2014, clusters of well-dressed men and women filed into the gleaming metal and glass superstructure of the Defense Intelligence Agency at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, just across the river from Reagan National Airport, for the retirement ceremony of Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, the agency’s director. Among those present to honor Flynn were James Clapper, the nation’s top intelligence officer—who was a master of ceremonies for the event—and Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
It wasn’t an easy moment. Together, Clapper and Vickers had forced Flynn out as the head of DIA.
The Defense Intelligence Agency is the Pentagon’s version of the CIA, a vast intelligence organization focused on providing senior officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and senior uniformed leaders, with the intelligence necessary to develop strategy and make scores of difficult decisions each day. During the ceremony, Flynn would be extolled by Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, as “the best intelligence officer of the past 20 years.” But given the nature of the intelligence business that united them, many of the attendees also knew that Flynn’s retirement at age 56 was premature. A well-known maverick, Flynn had been asked to “shake things up” at the 17,000-person agency. He brought a more wartime mind-set and ethos to a sleepy Washington bureaucracy, until the bureaucracy pushed back and Flynn’s gung-ho style was deemed too “disruptive” for an administration determined to put the unpleasant memories of Iraq and Afghanistan in the rearview mirror.
Taking the podium, Flynn, dark-haired with an aquiline face and a surfer’s wiry build, waved to his many family members in the crowd. He acknowledged the many senior officials in attendance, including his nemeses, Clapper and Vickers. He also made special note of retired General Stanley McChrystal, with whom Flynn had transformed the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) into history’s most lethal terrorist hunting network. “If there is any one individual in this country who changed the way America fights its wars, it was Stan,” Flynn told the capacity crowd. Of course, everyone there knew that McChrystal, too, had been ousted from his job, after an article in Rolling Stone titled “Runaway General” quoted unnamed members of his staff making disrespectful comments about the White House. Inside military and intelligence circles it was understood that McChrystal, along with another ousted former general, David Petraeus, were the preeminent generals and wartime field commanders of their generation of officers, and the manner of their dismissal struck many as insulting. As did the treatment of Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn.