Michael Flynn on Edward Snowden

I have recently come across something that I found odd. Before I say what it is, though, I would like to alert my readers to the low level of my expertise. I have a degree in reading Wikipedia on this. So rather than presenting a definitive conclusion I am perhaps the one who is asking: Are my assumptions correct and is my reasoning valid? Or do I get something wrong here?

As far as I understand it, Edward Snowden was first an employee of the CIA. The CIA is about foreign intelligence. He then went on and became a contractor who worked for the NSA. The NSA is responsible for intelligence gathering by electronic means, and this is with both a domestic and a global reach. The CIA and NSA are agencies of their own. They are not part of the Department of Defense, but I assume they often work together with them. The Department of Defense has its own military intelligence service, the DIA. And Michael Flynn was its head until August 2014.

Edward Snowden used his position as a contractor for the NSA to gain access to secret data about their work. He exfiltrated the information. With help from Wikileaks, he then went to Hong Kong in late May 2013 from where he leaked his cache of documents, or a part thereof, to Glenn Greenwald et al. About a month later, charges were brought against Snowden in the US. The legend is that he wanted to move on to some country in Latin America, possibly Cuba, his proximate destination, but instead stranded in Moscow shortly after. Or maybe that was the plan from the start. Snowden has been in Russia ever since as a political asylee. While I admit that I was naive about Snowden for a long time, I found that part always hard to swallow.

As far as I can see, the information Snowden had was mostly from the NSA. But that is unclear because he might not have leaked all the material he has or we have seen only a cross-section that is not representative. It seems so that Snowden had also access to networks beyond the NSA, eg. that of the “Five Eyes,” an international cooperation of intelligence services from the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. All but the last country think that he got his hands on some of their data. My understanding is that this network turns around operations similar to the NSA, ie. electronic surveillance and such. There is also another claim about data that Snowden may have scooped up, but I will get to that in a moment.

Now, here is what I found strange when I read it. I had not been looking for it, but there was something else that I immediately made a connection with, whether rightly or wrongly. I will write about that in another post.

This is from a CNN report that was published on March 7, 2014 and updated three days later (my highlight):

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, made that clear when he told National Public Radio in an interview broadcast Friday how U.S. officials must plan for the possibility that Vladimir Putin’s Russia has access to American battle plans and other secrets possibly taken by classified leaker Edward Snowden.
“If I’m concerned about anything, I’m concerned about defense capabilities that he may have stolen from where he worked, and does that knowledge then get into the hands of our adversaries — in this case, of course, Russia,” Flynn said of the former National Security Agency contractor who fled to Moscow to seek asylum.

At that point, I thought: Wait, didn’t Snowden work for the NSA? So how could he gain access to “battle plans?” My intuition is that the NSA is separate from the Department of Defense, and would not have such information. Even with access to a wider network with a similar purpose, he would not have that either. Maybe some part of the Department of Defense would participate in information sharing, but they would certainly not put “battle plans” online.

Let me note parenthetically that what Michael Flynn says here sounds somewhat ironic now. This is the same man that would sit at a table with Vladimir Putin one and a half years later as a special guest.

If you look at the original source, the interview with NPR on March 7, 2014, things are not as clear-cut. Michael Flynn does not use the word “battle plans” himself, and the point is rather put in his mouth by David Greene. But then he does not reject the suggestion either. Here is the relevant part:

Greene: Let me ask you about, ah, Edward Snowden who of course has gotten refuge from Russia. He’ s the former NSA contractor who leaked thousands of classified documents to the world. You have said most of what Snowden had access to was defense-related. What exactly are we talking about here?
Flynn: We have a — certainly a debate within the I-C right now about —
Greene: That’s the intelligence community.
Flynn: Yeah, the intelligence community. About what kinds of information did he touch, what did he take, what do we know. I think if I’m concerned about anything, I’m concerned about defense capabilities that he may have stolen from where he worked, and does that knowledge then get into the hands of our adversaries — in this case, of course, Russia.
Greene: Now defense capabilities; are we talking about U.S. war plans, are we talking about intelligence gathering methods? What exactly is it?
Flynn: I think it’s sort of an all of the above. I mean, it’s intelligence capabilities, it’s operational capabilities, it’s technology, it’s weapons systems.
Greene: You say all of the above. If you think there is a chance that he has access to war plans. If he has access to the way we gather intelligence — how do you respond to that? Are there changes that have to be made? Are there new war plans that have to be drawn up?
Flynn: The answer to it is we really don’t know. From what we do know, we have to assume the worst case and then begin to make some recommendations to our leadership about how do we mitigate some of the risks that may come from — from what may have been compromised. This is going to be one of these instances where we’re going to be dealing with this for many, many years. You know, it’s everything from changing some of the procedures or the techniques or the tactics that we use. We’ve already discussed how we defeat some of these improvised explosive devices, and we know that there’s some evidence that he may have gotten some information about that. And so we have to protect, you know, how we defeat these kind of devices. So we may need to change some of the way we operate.

If you read the part before that in the interview, but also this, irony is again what springs to my mind. Flynn portrays himself as a hardliner without any illusions while the Obama administration was fast asleep.

I would assume that to set up the interview David Greene would ask Flynn what he wanted to talk about. So I guess, Flynn was interested in getting a message out that Edward Snowden had stolen military data independently from data on surveillance programs, or in other words: that he was not an idealistic privacy activist, but simply a Russian spy. Maybe the reason Flynn suggested such a focus was that that made an interview worthwhile because it was sensational. So it could have also been a bait for NPR to talk about other things. But David Greene presses the point of “war plans,” which he would probably not do on his own.

Michael Flynn mentions that at the time there were disagreements within the intelligence community about his conclusions. My intuition is that people perhaps asked the same question that I had: How could Snowden gain access to material in a remit other than that of the NSA?

Since Flynn does not explictly subscribe to the claim that Snowden had “battle plans,” I think there are other possible explanations. Some part of the Department of Defense was on the respective network and shared some data or tools. However, that would be more on the operational and rather low level if my intuition is correct, which may not be the case. Flynn would know this and should have rejected the idea that anything more sensitive was within Edward Snowden’s reach. That could have been an inaccuracy, though, in a short interview where it was hard to get this straight.

More information became known in 2015 after a “Freedom of Information Act” request was successful. My source for the quotes that follow is an article from Jason Leopold in VICE, published on June 4, 2015. The documents were heavily redacted, so the author knows only part of the story. The first point is this:

The lawmakers’ requests for information were made in December 2013 and again in February 2014, following classified briefings top officials at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) held for oversight committees in the House and Senate about a DIA assessment of the alleged damage to national security caused by Snowden’s leak of top-secret documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman, and Laura Poitras.

I gather from this that the DIA, either Michael Flynn directly or someone with his approval, had made similar claims as in the interview in or before December 2013. A damage assessment report went out in early January 2014. There is some background for Michael Flynn’s insinuations in his NPR interview:

However, the documents contain a startling claim revealed here for the first time: Snowden took “over 900,000” Department of Defense (DoD) files — more documents than he downloaded from the NSA about the agency’s surveillance programs, according to an undated two-page DIA report that was prepared for the head of a task force that assessed the damage caused by Snowden’s leaks in advance of the official briefing the Senate Intelligence Committee. The report references a chart that provides a “breakdown” of the “data sets” Snowden took and the “locations from where they were copied.”

This and talking points from the DIA on January 8, 2014, explain why the figure of 1.7 million files that Edward Snowden had downloaded began to float around, a figure that Glenn Greenwald claimed in May 2014 was false. Lawmakers during one hearing wondered why Snowden “who claims publicly to be seeking to reform NSA… acquired so many DoD files unrelated to NSA activities.” News about all this had already reached the press apparently in late 2013:

After the DIA completed a damage assessment report on December 18, 2013, about how Snowden apparently compromised US counterterrorism operations and threatened national security, leaks from the classified report immediately started to surface in the media. They were sourced to members of Congress and unnamed officials who cast Snowden as a “traitor.”

That is also consistent with what was learned later, namely that members of the House Armed Services Committee “ were both appreciative of the report and expressed repeatedly that this information needed to be shared with the American public.”

Of course, the claims from the DIA caused surprise and alarm and so further questions were asked by the committees. “Yet in a separate February 6, 2014 summary of a congressional briefing DIA officials held for House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense staffers, DIA officials were not as explicit about how much information Snowden took from the DoD.” Future briefings were announced and took place with the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

David Greene insisted on “battle plans” not out of the blue as it seems. That was perhaps the information he got from Michael Flynn beforehand:

The document goes on to say that committee staffers were told Snowden downloaded military files that “could negatively impact future military operations.” But DIA did not disclose details about exactly how that would happen.

Something took place between February and the next date in May. On April 30, the Washington Post revealed that Flynn was being fired: “Head of Pentagon intelligence agency forced out, officials say.” He himself saw it as a resignation, here is a paragraph now from Wikipedia with sourcing:

On April 30, 2014, Flynn announced his retirement effective later that year, about a year earlier than he had been scheduled to leave his position. He was reportedly effectively forced out of the DIA after clashing with superiors over his allegedly chaotic management style and vision for the agency.[31][32][33][34] In a private e-mail that was leaked online, Colin Powell said that he had heard in the DIA (apparently from later DIA director Vincent R. Stewart) that Flynn was fired because he was “abusive with staff, didn’t listen, worked against policy, bad management, etc.”[33] According to The New York Times, Flynn exhibited a loose relationship with facts, leading his subordinates to refer to Flynn’s repeated dubious assertions as “Flynn facts”.[35]

It seems like the DIA now became even more reluctant to answer questions about its former claims (again back in the VICE article):

David Leatherwood, the DIA’s director of operations, explained in a May 21 declaration filed in US District Court in Washington, DC what some of the military intelligence information DIA discussed with Congress relates to and why the agency believes the information must remain classified.
In a paragraph on page three of the documents DIA turned over to VICE News, Leatherwood said “DIA describes the classified discussions [with Congress] concerning the impact of the Snowden disclosures on military plans and operations. The paragraph refers to the assessment of the scope of that impact, and thus warrants classification. Disclosure of the information would degrade the military capabilities of the United States … “
Additionally, Leatherwood said one paragraph on page twelve of the documents was redacted because it refers to “a nuclear program or facility.” Another paragraph on the same page “relates to vulnerabilities or capabilities of systems, installations, infrastructure, projects, plans or protective services related to national security.”

This again confirms that what Flynn had probably told David Greene in advance was indeed that Edward Snowden had gotten his hands on something like “battle plans.” Information was withheld because it related to “strength and deployment of forces, troop movements, ship sailings, the location and timing of planned attacks, tactics and strategy, operations of weapons systems and supply logistics.”

That raises my initial question again: How could Edward Snowden gain access to this? It makes no sense to me that anyone would put such sensitive information on a network for agencies engaged in electronic surveillance. But maybe I miss something. Edward Snowden who was proud of his other exploits denied in 2014 “DoD and intelligence officials’ claims he deliberately downloaded military files.“ But then if he was a spy he might do that because it would blow his cover as a whistleblower.

As Jason Leopold notes the information from the DIA that had seemed to some lawmakers so important that the public should know about it, was later rather apocryphal:

Although the DIA released a copy of its second damage assessment report to me last year — albeit a redacted version that did not contain any specific details to support the conclusion that Snowden caused “grave damage” to national security — members of the House Intelligence Committee said the report was “excellent and timely.”

Requests from the committees met with less and less success, and seem to have fizzled out by September 2014:

The DIA’s briefings for Congress continued through last September, according to the documents, which reveal that House and Senate Armed Services Committee members were frustrated that the DIA did not share another damage assessment report with the committee that the DIA completed months earlier.
At one briefing that month, Thornberry said “this was a briefing he did not want to miss as it has been a long time since he received an update on what information was compromised and the impact to US national security.”
[…]
“He also mentioned that it was hard to think of something that has happened in the world that is more deserving of a response and that can affect future funding” of the DIA, according to the DIA’s congressional briefing summary.
But another DIA congressional briefing summary, dated September 9, 2014 and sent to DIA deputy director David Shedd, said DIA officials were also “warned” by committee staffers that lawmakers “would be frustrated” if the so-called Joint Staff Mitigation Oversight Task Force “could not show progress and provide specific examples of steps taken to mitigate damage done to capabilities, plans, and partnerships by the [Snowden] breach.”

Now what to make of all this?

It seems like during Michael Flynn’s tenure, the official position of the DIA was that Snowden had had access to internal material at the Department of Defense. Afterwards, it was no longer as clear, and one probable interpretation is that the claim was walked back.

Michael Flynn’s departure was sudden and unexpected. The reasons given are quite general. If he was an incompetent manager, it would have been possible to sideline him and fade him out. That it went so fast makes it plausible that there was a special reason that made a dismissal urgent. After news broke in late April 2004, Michael Flynn was out on August 7, 2014, which seems like an odd date for the end of his tenure. In addition, he also retired from the Army at the same time.

One reason might have been the “Flynn data” that his subordinates disliked. An obvious candidate why Michael Flynn had to go would be the revelations about Edward Snowden. The remainder of the story would then seem like damage control of the damage control.

There are many possible explanations:

  • I may miss something and it was indeed possible that Snowden got his hands on critical information from the Department of Defense. Flynn was right.
  • The DIA messed up and thought that they had proof, but then discovered it was not so, or it was not that stringent or pervasive. It was then hard to admit the mistake. But according to the DIA, a big team was on the case since July 2013. Would they have done that if the initial information was lukewarm? Maybe if Michael Flynn or someone else high up wanted it so. But then I would expect a strong rebuke for Michael Flynn, not his dismissal.
  • Michael Flynn did not have the information he claimed to have. Still that would also imply that others followed his lead, talking points and report to congressional committees were fudged. That is hard to believe. However, if it was so, that would be a very good reason to can Flynn ASAP. Although the official story is one of resignation, the early news reports and the odd departure date seem like some settlement was negotiated. But that must have been pretty fast.

I really don’t know what it is. And maybe there are also other possibilities that I miss. Given Michael Flynn’s later evolution, it is tempting to assume a sinister explanation, eg. that he tried to shift the blame for a breach at the Department of Defense on Edward Snowden, or even that he tried to cover his own tracks. Or maybe it was not the handling of the Snowden affair, but something else: the very strange connection “General Misha” had with a Russian woman in the UK. It is hard to tell when that story began, but I think a plausible timeline is from late 2013 to early 2014. So that could also have been the reason for a sudden dismissal. I will write more about it in another post. As I said: I really don’t know, and I can easily get something wrong with my low level of expertise.