“Putin Has Knocked the Pieces off the Board”


“For a long time, we’ve been playing checkers while Putin has been playing chess, combining tactics with strategy and looking several moves ahead,” said the General. “In Ukraine, though, he’s done something wildly different, to which we have no real response. He has simply knocked the pieces off the board.”

The speaker, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, is the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, which primarily supports our combat operations everywhere. Commissioned as an Army intelligence officer in 1981, he has served in that branch ever since, in many posts and deployments. A chestful of ribbons attests to his qualifications. He is of medium height with short hair, has strong, lean features, and an intense expression. The modernistic DIA building is on the Anacostia-Bolling air base, out beyond the Pentagon.

As he should, he has sharply original points of view, and where he has served has not hesitated to shake up the organizations he commands. Example: the first question we ask a new defector is, “What do you know about any plan to attack the U.S.?” It’s our greatest worry. But still, the U.S.  has often been taken by surprise when an enemy attacks. One reason is that a significant clue may be picked up by one of our many intelligence agencies and then put aside for further study without moving on to be combined with other significant clues to “connect the dots.” For instance, before the attack on the World Trade Center we knew that Bin Laden was plotting to hurt us, and it had been noticed that a number of swarthy Levantines had enlisted in flying schools to study how to fly giant passenger jet planes, but without learning how to take off. Odd! These sinister folk were not just hobbyists. What could it mean? The resources of the intelligence community were never deployed to figure that out, alas.

A prodigious example is Pearl Harbor:

  1. In 1941, a whole Japanese fleet had disappeared up north. Absolute radio silence, no trace.
  2. From breaking the Japanese codes we gathered that Japan was planning to attack the U.S. in the Pacific: But where? Guam? The Philippines? Several messages went out to our commands: THIS IS A WAR WARNING. But the admiral commanding in Pearl Harbor, the really fat target, was so convinced he was out of reach that eventually he refused to discuss that peril.
  3. We also knew that the Japanese were given to declaring war at the very moment of a surprise attack, and also that they liked to strike at dawn, with their bombers diving out of the sun.
  4. We were reading their final message to their embassy in Washington, strongly indicating war. We could actually observe the embassy papers being burned.
  5. Finally, their ambassador demanded a meeting with our Secretary of State Hull at exactly noon on December 7.
  6. Alas, the one great question was never asked: Where is it dawn in the Pacific when it’s noon in Washington? Answer: Pearl Harbor! We found out the hard way.

*      *      *

Quite obviously, the correct approach to all this must be to create a single center to collect all information on serious threats, so they can be studied and matched up with other clues, to reveal the underlying pattern, the big picture.

Such a center, one of General Flynn’s key initiatives, now exists, offering “all-source analysis,” within the Defense Intelligence Analysis Program. It is being expanded across all the 17 organizations in the intelligence community. Can it be made to work? Time will tell. Different agencies traditionally are reluctant to share what they know, and have different approaches: the F.B.I. likes to make a pinch and call a press conference, while the C.I.A. likes to patiently track the bad guys and see where it all leads to.

And of course the campaign can’t be limited to just the U.S. Half of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s 17,000 people are stationed at 262 locations in 140 countries abroad, whether as military attachés−official spies−or attached to major commands. There is also a quiet clandestine service, not made up of flashy James Bonds, but of Sherlock Holmeses. (This activity has worried the Senate Armed Services Committee, who ask if it shouldn’t be in the C.I.A.)

An Energy Marshall Plan for Europe

As a result of all this infrastructure, we knew what was coming in the Ukraine. Not, however, what to do about it. Manifestly, Putin has calculated that we can’t do anything. At least, in the short term.

The long term is another story. If the west gets disturbed enough, General Flynn points out that we can and perhaps should create an energy Marshall Plan, permitting Europe to avail itself of our excess energy availability in case of need. This will make Europe much less dependent on the Russians’ energy exports, a semi-monopoly that gives them a grip on Europe’s throat. A more plentiful energy supply should also lower prices, making things harder for them.

One view of the Ukraine situation, incidentally, is that George Kennan was right in warning us not to get too involved there: that country is of the utmost sensitivity to Russia, its very heart and breadbasket, and part of its traditional system of buffers against European invaders from the west. We, after all, would never rest if Russia established a heavy presence just across the border in Mexico. Henry Kissinger says that Ukraine should be somewhere between Russia and the west politically, but able to trade in either direction as it likes.

*       *       *

And Afghanistan? Gen. Flynn, who served as intelligence chief there, maintains that we focused on the wrong things. The highest levels do not need more details on road bombs. In the words of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, “Our senior leaders−the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress, the President of the United States−are not getting the right information to make decisions with.” What they need is a full-color three-dimensional portrait. What are each local population’s attitudes? How are things going overall? What do they want most and need most? How can we drive a wedge between the people and the Taliban? As one combat officer said at the time, “We’re no more than fingernail deep in our understanding of the environment.”

So, what to do? Gen. Flynn’s prescription is to get away from our traditional system of having officers at high levels studying functional concerns−governance, narcotics, insurgent networks. Instead, they should cover specific districts in the round. “Consider, for instance, the sports page of a metropolitan newspaper. When the editor assigns reporters to cover football, one covers the Jets and another covers the Giants. The editor does not tell the first to write about all NFL linebackers and the second to write about the league’s punters. Determining whether teams have a shot at the Super Bowl requires analysis of them as a whole, not in vertical slices.”

Gen. Flynn’s solution is the creation of Information Centers in important areas. These collect intelligence by sending qualified officers out to the units in their districts to talk to the people on the ground, both military and civilian, particularly local leaders. In reverse, to get that information back to those who need it, the Centers have “information brokers” who disseminate it to its “customers”− military and civilian, domestic and foreign.

Gen. Flynn finds that fully understanding each local situation and making use of that knowledge is a key to success. An example is First Battalion, Fifth Marines. When they arrived in Nawa in Helmand province, they were fired on when they got away from their base.  The local farmers wouldn’t look at them, let alone speak with them: too afraid of Taliban retaliation. In the next months officers accompanied local government officials to talk to citizens about their concerns−thus depriving the Taliban of a monopoly on local control. It turned out that many of the elders were angry that the Taliban had undermined their authority. After six months Nawa had changed completely. The marketplace is bustling, and farmers chase away road bombers. Similarly, the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment turned their local situation around by joining up with the existing power structures to undercut the insurgents. Likewise the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry in Logar Province.

*      *      *

One U.S. commander in Afghanistan said, “The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy.” Indeed, Soviet Lt. Gen. Ruslan Aushev, who fought for years in Afghanistan, publicly cited the Soviet failure to pay attention to the local environment as a central reason for the Russian failure there. The more people they killed, the more numerous and determined became the opposition. So in the end they quit: the only time a Red Army campaign has been beaten in the field. They learned their lesson. General Flynn thinks we must too.

I hope he has time to carry out his many important plans. He’s retiring from his high post and returning to civilian life later this year, after a most remarkable career. Fortunately, he is confident that many of his reforms will be permanent.