This post was co-authored by Linda Keenan and Janine R. Wedel.
In December, Major General Michael T. Flynn told a reporter, "I've always operated so far outside my lane, I'm not sure what lane is mine anymore".
Just weeks later, he delivered on that maverick reputation. As the top intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Flynn used a think tank to deliver a blistering report on the state of intelligence-gathering in the country. The president of the think tank, the Center for a New American Security, acknowledged to Wired defense and security reporter Nathan Hodge that "....it was an irregular way to disseminate an idea for a serving officer." Irregular, yes but not altogether shocking.
Janine's Shadow Elite charts a new system of power and influence, in which a new breed of power brokers draws on diverse interconnections in and out of government, deliberately blurs state and private interests and organizations, flouts traditional authorities, plays overlapping roles, and brands their message to promote their own agendas and ideology. Increasingly these power brokers have been using untraditional means, pushing influence outside the boundaries of the government organization they officially report to.
The story of how and why General Flynn issued his report demonstrates all of these features, as well as the ambiguity that characterizes the shadow elite. Perhaps that ambiguity is just as Flynn intended, because in this new arrangement of power, ambiguity can serve as cover for those in charge. And the story also highlights another trend explored in Shadow Elite: the way think tanks have emerged not just as simple outlets of policy research but as real accessories to power.*
Flynn's report is a sweeping indictment, arguing that intelligence officers and analysts in Afghanistan are "ignorant of local economics ... hazy about who the powerbrokers are ... and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers." Our focus here is not on the report's conclusions, but on the way it was released, and the troubling implications. The report itself drew Pentagon praise, the press secretary there saying Defense Secretary Gates found the findings "spot on", even as another spokesman described the report's very public release as "...a little bit curious".
That's quite the understatement. You'd expect that such criticism would get hashed out within the secure confines of the Pentagon, but instead Flynn chose to do the opposite: put it out in the media via a think tank that enlists several prominent journalists as fellows. In doing so, Flynn, an elite military figure with one of the most sensitive roles in the war, appeared to defy traditional conduct in an organization where adherence to authority and protocol is paramount, a bending of the rules that is a telltale sign of the shadow elite in action.
The think tank Flynn chose is only three years old, supported by defense companies and U.S. military agencies, among other funders, and its stated mission is to develop "strong, pragmatic and principled national security and defense policies that promote and protect American interests and values." But that hardly captures CNAS' influence and reach, with staffers who've had shifting roles in and out of both the military and the media.
CNAS was co-founded in 2007 by Michele Flournoy, who is currently Under Secretary of Defense for Policy of the United States. The CEO, Nathaniel Fick, took part in the early parts of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as a Marine Corps infantry officer and then went on to become an author and on-air CBS News national security consultant. Along with other retired officers, CNAS also features The Atlantic's Robert Kaplan and defense writer Tom Ricks. As noted by Wired's Hodge, one of Ricks' former colleagues at the Wall Street Journal is also a co-author of the Flynn report: Marine Capt. Matt Pottinger. It's also interesting to note that when looking at the actual report, you will not see Pottinger's journalist background mentioned in his thumbnail biography. But you will see a literal example of the shadow elite's practice of blurring state and private: recommendations from this top active military officer about America's conduct in war, sitting right alongside the logo of CNAS.
Some argue that Flynn's public flogging is just what the struggling Afghanistan war needs, a sharp wake-up call to a slumbering bureaucracy, and that may well be true. But Flynn's choice of a non-governmental entity to issue his criticism still has some unsettling implications, as detailed in Shadow Elite.
First, what agendas are being flexed here? Flynn's move creates what Janine describes in Shadow Elite as a "coincidence of interests" for both himself, (and perhaps his associates in the military brass) and the think tank in question. CNAS, as the anointed conduit, can boast access to one of the most powerful military figures operating in Afghanistan. There's also the fact that Flynn used an organization populated by journalists to argue that the military might consider hiring ... ex-journalists to help rejuvenate intelligence gathering. And Flynn gets to air his views, which may well have been silenced had he kept his report internal. Whose cages are being rattled? Is it the CIA? The Pentagon civilian leadership? Are they his views alone? Was the release privately vetted, as some reporters suggest, by Flynn's boss General Stan McChrystal, the top US and allied commander? Was Under Secretary Flournoy, in the words of Politico's Laura Rozen, "back-channeling the generals" through her old think tank?
The ambiguity serves the shadow elite well, offering various power brokers ways to push agendas, perhaps anonymously, that are not readily apparent to the public. They are also not subject to the traditional monitors that exist when actions remain within the bounds of the state, or the standards procedures for check and balance that are set up when the state uses outside institutions to do its work.
Second, Flynn appears to have at least informal relations with these think-tankers, who might have some role in making or shaping policy, and yet they answer to no one, and are not under the same expectations and authority that a member of the military would be. Note that the authors also thank in their acknowledgements "several anonymous external reviewers", and again the public is left to wonder who they are, and what unseen and unaccountable power these "reviewers" might have.
Third is the idea of institutions becoming less distinct, losing the more clearly defined identities that the public can easily understand. The evolution of think tanks over the years is a case in point. CNAS is just the latest one to emerge as a force far more powerful than simple policy wonks. Beginning in the 1980s, proponents of the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative set up or mobilized several pressure organizations to influence the opinion of decision makers, helping to keep missile defense alive after the end of the Cold War. And think tanks, along with so-called "letterhead organizations," helped buttress the dozen or players that Janine in Shadow Elite terms the Neocon Core, who helped push the U.S. to war in Iraq.
The Neocon Core used a web of interlocking memberships in these groups to help generate buzz and give the veneer of scholarly disinterest and neutrality to policy pronouncements that in reality were serving the ideological interests of the players agitating for war. And it went even further than that. Their experts, true neoconservative believers, were actually brought in to populate secret offices in the Pentagon. These offices were set up to supplant standard governing intelligence-gathering and analysis with their own version of the Iraq threat, a version that served the neoconservative goal of invading Iraq, but, as we would later learn, did not reflect the facts on the ground.
This is not to suggest that Flynn and his use of CNAS rise to the level of the Neocon Core. It is, however, certainly a clear case of shadow elite behavior, using unconventional routes and connections in and out of government to push agendas in ways that make it impossible for the average citizen to discern motive. Take it from Flynn's boss, General McChrystal who said of Flynn last year, "he never asks, 'Why can't we do this?' He just busts down walls." He wasn't kidding.
And maybe Flynn's report will improve intelligence-gathering in Afghanistan, which would be entirely welcome. Perhaps channeling it through a think-tank provided the needed shock-value. But this maverick move still comes at a cost: undermining the ability of government to act in a way that government should: with transparency, and accountability.
*Full Disclosure - Author Janine R. Wedel, in addition to her professorship at George Mason University, wrote Shadow Elite while affiliated as a fellow at the New America Foundation, which conducts programs known for creating policy proposals that are not easily pegged in terms of left or right, Democratic or Republican.