How Gen. Michael Flynn Became A Central Figure In The Russia Hacking Scandal
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Late in the day yesterday, The New York Times broke a story reporting that American spies collected information last summer revealing that senior Russian intelligence and political officials were discussing how to exert influence over candidate Donald Trump through his advisers.
My guest, Matthew Rosenberg, is one of the three reporters who wrote that story. Rosenberg covers intelligence and national security for the Times and has been covering the investigations into General Michael Flynn and his communications with and payments from Russia. Flynn was part of the Trump campaign and was appointed President Trump's national security adviser. He was forced to resign after 25 days because of his undisclosed communications with Russian officials.
Rosenberg knows Flynn from Afghanistan when Rosenberg was reporting there and Flynn was the military intelligence chief there. Rosenberg was expelled from Afghanistan in 2014 after reporting stories that made the Afghan government unhappy. We'll talk about that a little later.
Matthew Rosenberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. So would you summarize for us the latest reporting that you've done on what U.S. intelligence knew about Russian interference in the U.S. election?
MATTHEW ROSENBERG: So this goes back to kind of the beginning of the summer or early summer where at this point the DNC hacks, all that had happened. And what we've heard - and we've heard this repeatedly in recent months - is that the actual stealing of data, that was - that's seen as espionage. And the U.S. does it elsewhere in the world. Concerning, but not the kind of thing you react to because, you know, there's a holier than thou issue there.
But then in early summer, U.S. intelligence began to pick up a lot of chatter of Russian officials debating how aggressively they should try to meddle in the election and talking about who on the Trump camp they could try to work with. And two names kept coming up, basically Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort. And, you know, Flynn is somebody who a year earlier had been in Moscow as a guest of Russia Today, RT, to give a paid speech. He was paid $45,000. He went to their anniversary dinner, sat at Putin's elbow.
So they were sort of bragging, like, we really know this guy. How far they got, whether they were successful in working with anyone in the Trump campaign, like, that's obviously, you know, the subject of federal investigation and multiple congressional investigations. So we don't know the answer to that, but it's becoming pretty clear that there's a reason why the FBI investigation began in the summer and why the CIA and the NSA and others began to get really spun up as they started to hear American people being discussed by Russians and then sort of tracking contacts between the Russians and some of these Americans.
GROSS: I guess that also helps us understand why Flynn is under such close scrutiny now and being investigated by different bodies.
GROSS: So do you think that Michael Flynn is the person from the Trump administration and campaign who is most vulnerable now in the investigations?
ROSENBERG: It certainly looks that way. You know, he's potentially in deep legal trouble. And it's not necessarily related to collusion, which is, you know, an incredibly high criminal standard. He - there are other issues he's got. He lobbied for Turkey without registering properly as a foreign agent which is a felony, although, you know, how seriously those things are prosecuted is debatable. But he also may have lied to investigators when he was renewing a security clearance in 2016 - at the beginning of 2016 - before he was really in the Trump campaign.
If that is the case, that's a pretty serious felony. That's like five years in prison, up to five years in prison. You lose your clearance. I mean, that is - and so you've got at least two that we know of, real potential crimes that are being investigated. And once you're in that situation, you become really vulnerable to all kinds of legal machinations, all kinds to investigators who now have leverage.
GROSS: So he did not register as a foreign agent when he was lobbying for Turkey during the Trump campaign. And he was paid over $600,000 over 90 days to run an influence campaign aimed at discrediting Fethullah Gulen, the cleric who lives in Pennsylvania who was accused by President Erdogan of Turkey of orchestrating the failed coup last summer. And he even wrote an op-ed in the publication The Hill that advocated improved relations between Turkey and the U.S. and that called Gulen a shady Islamic Mullah.
What is the import of that? I mean, so we have that he was a paid consultant to a foreign country and during the campaign and didn't say so. And then he actually wrote an op-ed advocating things that he was being paid to say about a foreign country and about somebody who Turkey wants to extradite.
ROSENBERG: And without disclosing it as well. And that op-ed may have been, you know, one of his bigger mistakes. So go back to like right before the elections. Say it's October. Nobody thinks Trump's going to win, even his own people. The Russians certainly don't. Most Americans certainly don't or many certainly don't. And Flynn appears to have been rushing to get this op-ed in. He had it published in The Hill, you know, on Election Day.
And I think the thinking there was - and that what we've kind of heard - is that his thinking was, you know, this has got to get done before then because after Election Day, a less interesting, less compelling character obviously once Trump has lost. And so he rushes and gets it in on the 8 and doesn't mention that he's being paid. There's - nobody knows he's being paid by Turkey for this. And it's a really strident kind of op-ed in support of Erdogan and against Gulen, this cleric who lives in the U.S.
And I think that's what got federal investigators kind of poking around in this. It certainly got journalists poking around on it. And so there are two different problems with the arrangement here is - the first is the purely legal issue. Which is when you lobby for a foreign government, any kind of foreign government, any - when you do any kind of lobbying that basically represents the interests of a foreign country, you're supposed to register with the Justice Department. And you just fill out this form, describe the arrangement, who's getting paid, who you're paying through this arrangement. And Flynn didn't do that.
What he did do was file a lesser kind of registration form with Congress that you only do if you're not lobbying for a foreign government. He did that in September, which looks questionable as well. You know, like, well, wait, you knew what you were doing, but you kind of filed something that said you weren't doing that? And that's the kind of thing that legally doesn't really sit well when you have to kind of explain it after the fact.
So there's that legal issue, but then there's also kind of the question of, should somebody who is a very high-profile adviser for obviously one of two major presidential campaigns be lobbying for a foreign government while advising that candidate, not tell anyone about it and really not acknowledge that he did it until March, until after he was fired?
So this was a guy who was eventually going into the White House. He was going to be taking a job, that national security adviser job that he was given. I mean, that is a job of - you have ready access to the president. You are often the final word or one of the final words of advice to the president about how to handle any number of kind of foreign policy crisis from like Ebola to Ukraine to a crisis in Turkey, from whose behalf he was lobbying. And you also have access to almost every kind of American intelligence secret. And so to know that you were very recently a paid foreign agent, I mean, that's something that, you know, in most White Houses would never fly.
GROSS: So Flynn's invoked the Fifth Amendment and declined to testify before Congress, but documents have been subpoenaed, Flynn documents from - his personal documents and documents from his intelligence company that he started after he left the military. The documents are being subpoenaed by a Virginia grand jury. What is this grand jury?
ROSENBERG: So there's a grand jury. It's in the eastern district of Virginia. It's helping kind of investigate we at least know the Flynn case. And we're still trying to figure out its connection to the kind of bigger Russia investigation. We believe it's part of that. So they've subpoenaed documents. And Congress has also subpoenaed them, the Senate intelligence committee. He's also refusing to hand those over as well.
And so you've got kind of multiple investigations talking - telling Mike that, you know, we need you to give us documents, and we're going to want you to testify or at least come speak to us. And I think, you know, for anyone in this situation, it's a tough one, but there is only one investigation they can put you in prison.
That's the one that the Justice Department, the FBI are doing. So I imagine that's the one you're going to be most responsive to. And, you know, you're not going to want to provide evidence - and his lawyers have said this, that you don't really want to provide evidence to Congress that can then be used against you in court by the Justice Department or the FBI.
GROSS: And you've got the House intelligence committee and Senate intelligence committee investigating. So you have all these different investigations going on at the same time, investigating Flynn, investigating President Trump. So is this a kind of added - value added kind of thing where we have more better, investigation as a result of so many investigations happening simultaneously, or are they in competition, are they hindering each other in any way?
ROSENBERG: So I think for the public, it's definitely value added. It certainly is for journalists as well. I mean, the more people investigating, the more likely we are, all of us, to find out what's going on and who's looking at what and what they're finding out. I think if you asked the FBI and the Justice Department, they would - they'd probably say they're hindering them a bit.
I can imagine that Robert Mueller, who was the former FBI director that was just appointed as special counsel, is going to want to avoid all the testimony we've been seeing in the last few weeks with people coming out and kind of saying these big things. He's going to want his investigation to go on quietly. I mean, I have yet to meet any kind of investigator who wants to do their work in public. And that's a lot of what Congress does. The congressional committees are in a more awkward position because there's a lot they have to do privately because a lot of this is classified.
But they also do work in public, and they also rely to a degree on the FBI and the intelligence community. So, you know, you're talking nine investigators, I think right now, who are in the Senate - who have been hired by the Senate or working on the Senate investigation, which is kind of the biggest one and seen as the most promising one. Nine is not a lot of people, and they can't go out and collect intelligence, meaning they're not eavesdropping on Russians or tracking people down in Europe or anything like that. That's what the CIA does and the NSA does.
And so these investigators spend their days down at Langley, at the CIA headquarters, sifting through raw intelligence and finished intelligence analysis that the CIA and the NSA and others have produced in talking to the FBI about the evidence they're collecting. And then they do some of their own interviews, and they, you know, obviously look into things that they can within, you know, their abilities. But if the congressional investigators were to lose access to what the intelligence community has and what the FBI has, they would have a lot of trouble getting kind of credible, complete investigations done.
GROSS: Does it look like they might lose that access?
ROSENBERG: Not yet. They seem to be pressing ahead. I mean, I think it's still up in the air. You know, one of the things that seemed to really upset, like, Senator Burr, who's a Republican, he seemed incredibly upset when Comey was fired, largely - he called Comey, you know, one of the - kind of best cooperation he'd ever gotten from an FBI director. And there's always this weird relationship between law enforcement and the intelligence community and the intelligence committee. There's a tension there continually because the people who run America's intelligence agencies don't want to go up and brief 10 senators or 20 congressmen or more on incredibly sensitive secrets because they think those people just leak like sieves. And so there is always, you know, this sense of we want to tell them just enough so they'll get off our backs and we won't, you know, be defying them, but we don't want to tell Congress more than they need to know because if we do, the whole - the rest of the world's going to find out about it, too.
GROSS: So are there concerns in the congressional intelligence committees that if President Trump appoints a new FBI director who doesn't want to - who wants to kind of obstruct the investigation in any way that will make it harder for the House and Senate intelligence committees to do their job?
ROSENBERG: I think that definitely was a huge concern until Mueller was appointed last week. Mueller kind of changes the - changes the math on this a bit because he now oversees the investigation. Could an FBI director come in or the Justice Department and kind of just say, well, we're only going to you this many people and make it really difficult? I imagine that that's the case. But that seems awfully heavy-handed, and I can't imagine you're going to find an FBI director who's that overtly political. Then again, just from the names that have been bandied about are pretty political. But right now, it looks like with Mueller in place, everybody's kind of got some confidences, kind of waiting to see how it starts to play out.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Rosenberg. He covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times. He previously spent 15 years as a foreign correspondent. He was expelled from Afghanistan in 2014 because they didn't like his reporting. We're going to take a short break and then talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Rosenberg. He covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times. He's been writing about the investigations into the Trump administration, including the investigation into General Michael Flynn's ties to Russia and Turkey, which Flynn didn't reveal when working for the Trump campaign or when he was made national security adviser.
What do we know now that the Trump team knew in advance about Flynn's foreign ties, what the Trump team knew before hiring him as national security adviser?
ROSENBERG: So it looks like they knew a lot. Trump, first of all, right after the election, Trump - I think it was like on the 10th or 11th of November - Trump sits down with Obama. Obama had fired Flynn as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. A lot of that was management issues. The agency - Flynn was kind of brought in to reform it, and it turned into this chaotic, backbiting mess. Flynn also kind of during his time there, come to - you'd see the first signs of him really buying into this world view that he's fully open about now that, you know, the number one enemy the U.S. has is Islamic extremism - Islamist extremism and Iran.
There's. This unholy alliance between the Iranians who are Shiite and the Sunni kind of ISIS al-Qaida crowd and that we are in a world war. And we have to do everything we can to fight them, you know, and that means dealing with Russians whomever. And so you have this world view developing and this kind of really bad management and just temperament issues. So Obama fires him in 2014 in August when he retired. He obviously joins up with Trump, and then Trump wins. Trump visits the White House, and Obama tells him, like, don't hire this guy. He's not going to work out for you and goes over the issues they had at the DIA and kind of tried to give Trump some advice.
Trump totally ignores that. They go on. They announce Flynn's going to be the national security adviser very early on. I think he's one of the first people, maybe the first kind of major appointment that Trump announced in November during the transition. And then in late kind of early January, they find out that not only was Flynn secretly advising the Turks, while, you know, being Trump's chief national security adviser, he was also now under federal investigation for this and for not disclosing it. And we've - our reporting is that, you know, they first - Flynn first warned Don McGahn, the White House counsel who was then kind of the chief transition counsel on January 4. That's 16 days before the inauguration.
And then on the 6th, his own lawyer spoke with some people in the transition legal team and doesn't seem to have made a difference. You know, I spoke to a bunch of people who said in any other White House, this would have been automatic disqualification. The mere - the lobbying alone would have been a disqualification, but now being under federal investigation would have been immediate. And it raises all kinds of issues about like, you know, your vulnerability to kind of blackmail by others. Of course, at the same time, what nobody knew in early January, but were - well, what most people didn't know, and I'm not sure exactly who knew what and when - is that a few days earlier at the end of December on the 29th, the Obama administration - and it imposed sanctions on Russia, expelled Russian diplomats and take some other measures over the election - hacking.
And that day after the Russian ambassador was informed, he walked out of the State Department and got on the phone with Mike Flynn. And over the next 36 hours they had a series of conversations in which Flynn seemed to have talked him off the ledge. And later, at least the White House says, he misled Vice President Pence and other people of the White House about the nature of those phone calls he had with the Russian ambassador, and that was the reason they said why he was fired. But before he was fired, more than two weeks before he was fired, the White House was already briefed on these issues.
Sally Yates, the former - acting attorney general at the time, came to the White House right after the inauguration a few days later and said, look, you got a real problem here. Flynn's lied to you. That makes him an opportunity for blackmail by Russians and other foreign agents, and you've got to be careful - still, took them 18 days to force him out.
GROSS: So when he talked - Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S. - when Flynn talked him off the ledge after Obama issued sanctions against Russia for interfering in the election, do you have any idea what Flynn said to Kislyak to talk him off the ledge, if he made any promises or whatever?
ROSENBERG: So we have this in broad outlines. You know, I think despite the fact that a number of, say, Republican-elected officials and their supporters in the media are running around claiming we have all kinds of transcripts and people are leaking stuff like that. That's not how this works. I mean, the NSA doesnt call us up and say, yo, here's a transcript of this phone call that just happened. I wish it would, and, please...
ROSENBERG: ...If anyone from the NSA is listening, get in touch. But that's not how this works. So - but we understand the broad outlines. Flynn calls him up and the basic message is, OK, look, we're going to be in office - at that point a little over three weeks - sit tight. We're going to work this out. There's a lot of great things we can do together in fighting ISIS and other issues. It's going to be a new day, so don't overreact to this.
And here's the thing. They didn't overreact. The Americans threw out 35 Russian diplomats as the cover, but I think they were all believed to be intelligence officials. They closed down two Russian diplomatic compounds - one in Maryland and one in New York, and the Russians didn't do anything. They didn't react at all. You know, normally, in that situation, they throw out 35 Americans, but in this case, they didn't do anything. And Trump actually praised them for not doing anything saying it was wise - I think was his words.
GROSS: So if the Trump administration - if President Trump appointed General Flynn to he - to be his national security adviser while knowing that Flynn had violated the law and lied about contacts with foreign countries, about lobbying for Turkey, does that leave President Trump open to any kind of ethical or criminal charges?
ROSENBERG: I don't think it does. It just leaves him open to kind of allegations of bad judgment. And I don't think it's the only thing people would criticize President Trump's judgment about at this point. But if there was something untoward in the campaign, if there is something for investigators to find, it creates a real vulnerability. Suddenly, you have this guy who is facing potential jail time, felony convictions, and, you know, if somebody is going to talk, it's somebody in that situation. And we know that he is - his lawyer has said that General Flynn has a story to tell. Those were the exact words, and he wants to tell it.
And he's - he told the Senate in change for immunity he would come and testify and fully cooperate. We believe that he may have made the same offer. We have every reason to believe he's been trying to get the FBI to come on the same plan, to give him an immunity for exchange for cooperation. That doesn't seem to have happened. Our understanding is that he is one of the top targets of the investigation. They were seen that way anyway by investigators, so there's no interest in giving him immunity right now.
And they're not also sure what he has to say and what he doesn't. So, you know, if you're Trump and you're thinking about this, you've got to worry that while this guy actually knows a lot, and he's got incentives to talk...
GROSS: My guest is Matthew Rosenberg. He covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times. After a break, we'll talk more about General Flynn, and Rosenburg will tell us how he got to know Flynn while reporting from Afghanistan where Flynn was the military intelligence chief. And we'll hear how Rosenberg's investigative reporting got him expelled from Afghanistan. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Matthew Rosenberg who covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times. We're talking about the investigations into General Michael Flynn and his ties to Russia and Turkey. Flynn was an adviser to the Trump campaign and became President Trump's national security adviser, but was forced to resign after less than a month because of his undisclosed communications with Russian officials. When we left off, we were talking about how Trump knew when he appointed Flynn that Flynn had failed to register as a paid lobbyist for Turkey and had covered up his calls with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
Under the circumstances, why would the Trump administration - why would President Trump want General Flynn on his team given what we think he knew about Flynn, given what we know other people in his administration knew about Flynn? What's the advantage of having Flynn in the administration? It leaves them vulnerable as we now know.
ROSENBERG: So if you're thinking about it strategically, just bring somebody close who knows a lot and, you know, they're back on side. But I think for Trump, it seems like there's a much deeper affinity there. Flynn was like the earliest kind of brand name general to sign up with the Trump campaign and really kind of got into the campaign. I mean, he was at the Republican Convention leading chants of lock her up. He really - he went full in for Trump. And there's a real loyalty there that I think Trump wants to reward and likes about Mike.
And I also think they kind of - they're weirdly similar characters. You know, Mike didn't go to West Point. He comes from this kind of working class Irish Catholic family from Rhode Island. His dad was a enlisted guy in the Army who when he retired started as a bank teller, worked his way up to vice president of this little bank. His mom went to law school - or back to college in her 50s or 60s. He's got nine brothers and sisters.
I mean, this is, you know, the kid who doesn't really seem - he's not part of some elite that kind of eases his way into the military. So he went to the University of Rhode Island, did RTC and kind of worked his way up and became by the end of his career, like, was known as one of the, like, best military intelligence officers of his generation, if not the absolute best. But I think he still sees himself as an outsider who hasn't necessarily gotten the respect that he thinks he's earned.
And I think, you know, Trump is a lot like that too. Trump's a kid from Queens who, you know, likes to see himself as having made it big in Manhattan, yet, you know, the swells in Manhattan don't really give him the respect he deserves and now as president that Washington doesn't do that. And so I think there's that kind of alliance of outsiders feeling between them. They certainly - and they have some other bad habits. They both like to tweet a lot, or at least before this all happened to Flynn, he's had a fairly intemperate Twitter - Twitter persona. And they have said incredibly harsh things about Islam, both of them. So there's a lot of kind of overlap there.
GROSS: So you said that Flynn had a reputation as a great soldier, one of the best, perhaps the best. Did he have a reputation as a great soldier but a bad leader?
ROSENBERG: So in retrospect, I think Flynn's kind of ability to lead has been really questioned because of his time in the Defense Intelligence Agency and just how badly that went. That was like his one solo command. And before that, before he did that, he was always the intelligence officer often working for other people. And kind of - his kind of biggest moments always came working with General Stanley McChrystal, who had reshaped JSOC during the war in Iraq that killed, you know, dismantled al-Qaida in Iraq and then had gone on to kind of become the commanding general in Afghanistan, only to kind of be fired by Obama after a Rolling Stone article in which a number of McChrystal staffers were quoted kind of criticizing the president and other people.
And, you know, Flynn and McChrystal are incredibly close. There's a whole kind of little tribe of McChrystal guys, and they're incredibly tight and remain that to this day. And so I think, you know, Flynn had always kind of been in the structure. And he'd - throughout that time though developed this reputation as having an incredible knack as an intelligence officer for kind of mapping and helping dismantle militant networks in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he'd also kind of just been this maverick. I hate to use that word, it's such a cliche, but he kind of really was. You know, he would break rules and do it in a way that he kind of thought was going to make the system work better.
So, you know, he would share intelligence with people he wasn't supposed to share intelligence with like the Pakistanis at times or, you know, sometimes our allies, the Brits and Australians. He wrote an entire kind of very scathing critique of how the intelligence community was working in Afghanistan during the war that infuriated the CIA because he published it publicly through a think tank in Washington and, you know, how they should redo things and how they needed to kind of be more focused on the war effort.
So there was always this streak that was like, you know, these rules get in the way. And we're going to tear down walls. We're going to open stuff up. And I think that really worked in the confines of the military where, you know, the military is a incredibly bureaucratic place, and it could use shaking up. I think a lot of people in the military know that. But when he got to the Defense Intelligence Agency, it just went totally sideways.
He alienated an incredible amount of people. He started relying on a fairly small group of loyalists. And there was this kind of predisposition to seeing everything through the prism of fighting Islamist extremism. Which is fine when you're actually fighting Islamist militants in Iraq or Afghanistan but when you're reading - leading a worldwide kind of intelligence agency, that, you know, that's just not going to fly.
GROSS: So you first met General Flynn in 2009. Is this when you were reporting from Afghanistan?
ROSENBERG: Yeah. We first met.
GROSS: And you stayed there till you were expelled (laughter) in 2014.
ROSENBERG: I was in and out, in and out. It wasn't continuous but yeah, I was back and forth.
GROSS: Oh, OK. OK.
ROSENBERG: And then there was - a lot of my life was spent there in those six years, so.
GROSS: So what was his job then? And what was the nature of your relationship?
ROSENBERG: So he was what they called the J2. He was the chief of intelligence for the American-led coalition in Afghanistan. And, you know, he was - it was fascinating, I got to say, when I first met him. Like, never had I met an intelligence officer who was this willing to talk to people, this open with press and this curious hearing what kind of people from the outside had to say. I think with a lot of intelligence types, especially in the military and some diplomats sometimes, you kind of run into this thing where they're in their bubble. And, you know, they'll say something like, well, we have classified reporting on this issue, so whatever you know about it doesn't really matter because we have our secrets. But those secrets, you know, are limited.
And I think, you know, like any of us, General Flynn seemed incredibly smart. He was interested in hearing what people outside the bubble had to hear. What do they know? And I think that was a revelation because you almost never encountered this. And he actually first - if I remember this correctly - he got in touch with me because he saw a story I had written. And he said, OK, this is mostly right, but there's a little other detail here that you need to know and it'll be even more right. And it was more favorable for them too, but he was correct about this.
So he had somebody reach out to me, invite me over. I mean, that alone was just astounding. You know, general - military intelligence generals don't normally do that. And so it was a bit of a revelation. But he also kind of - he liked to riff. And you had to be careful with General Flynn. There were things he could riff about that he wasn't entirely certain on and that, you know, if you kind of took it to the bank and put that in a newspaper story you might be wrong about. So there was always that tension. But he was open, tried to be honest.
And honestly, I had no idea what his politics were. I mean, that's one thing with the military, you never - they're pretty tight-lipped about what their politics are. I know a civilian who worked with General Flynn in Afghanistan, was talking to her kind of a few months ago. And she sat next to the guy for, like, eight months. She said she had - also had no idea what his politics were, figured he was like kind of moderate Democrat. And, in fact, the only political thing she ever heard him say once was that - some quip about Obama being a socialist, but she thought it might've been a compliment at the time.
GROSS: (Laughter) So Michael Flynn, after he left the military, was retweeting fake news stories. He was tweeting conspiracy theories. His son was retweeting fake news stories. His son was fired in his advisory role in the Trump transition. So do you think that Flynn changed a lot after leaving the military? Or do you think that he was always prone to conspiracy theories and to believing and advocating fake news?
ROSENBERG: So this is, I think, a question we've all wrestled with. And just in trying to report on that and figure out - what seems to have happened as, you know, he gets back from Afghanistan early 2011, and he's under investigation with the Pentagon, so he's kind of given this no-show job for, like, I think, six, seven, eight months. And he starts to talk to people in Washington, and he starts expanding his worldview, and he starts to get in with this crowd that I think, you know, a lot of people would say is often crossing the line into Islamophobia, you know, the anti-Shariah crowd. And he starts to kind of developing this worldview.
And I think that makes him a bit prone to some of these conspiracy theories. But what really sets him off is the firing. And you know, after he got fired by Obama in 2014, he just, you know, he just became increasingly bitter, thought he was totally mistreated, felt, you know, the administration was being completely dishonest, wasn't really trying to go after al-Qaida anymore, just wanted to declare victory and go home and just started to really kind of, you know, start getting into the, you know, into the birther fringe - fringe politics. And you can see that now where, you know, his son's been tweeting #PizzaGate. He's tweeted - tweeted out anti-Clinton conspiracy theories during the campaign. And he's also tweeted out statements that were by any measure crossed the line to Islamophobia, like fear of Muslims is - and then in all caps - rational.
And I think, you know, it's - it's hard for somebody who spent 33 years on the military and a lot of that time fighting a very specific enemy to kind of come back out into the broader world of ideas and have a rough landing in it. And I think we're seeing that a bit in General Flynn.
GROSS: And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Rosenberg. He covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Rosenberg. He covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times. He's been writing about the investigations into the Trump administration, including the investigation into General Michael Flynn's ties to Russia and Turkey, which Flynn did not reveal when working for the Trump campaign or when he was made national security adviser.
So let's talk about President Trump. Where do you think he is most vulnerable now in terms of the investigations into his behavior, his possible collusion with the Russians on interfering with the election, obstruction of justice?
ROSENBERG: I think, you know, if you're looking at it from a legal perspective - and I just want to say I'm not a lawyer - but it certainly looks like the obstruction of justice issue is going to be, for Trump himself, is probably the most threatening problem he's got at the moment. You know, he fired Jim Comey, who was running the FBI investigation as the director of the FBI, and then subsequently kind of acknowledged that he did it because of the Russia investigation. Comey also apparently kept notes of his time working under the Trump administration. And in those notes, a colleague of mine, Mike Schmidt, reported that Trump asked him the day after Flynn was fired as national security advisor to kind of ease off the investigation and just cut it out and let Flynn off. So that looks bad for Trump. Politically, you know...
GROSS: Can we just add that he also asked Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence...
ROSENBERG: Of course.
GROSS: ...And Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, to publicly deny any - that there was any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign?
ROSENBERG: Yeah. And I think that's - you know, that also brings us to an issue that I think we see here, which is that it's not clear the White House understands where politics is supposed to end, that in these jobs when it's the director of the CIA, the director of national intelligence, they are appointed by the president. So there's obviously politics in their appointment, but they're not political jobs. They're not policy jobs. They're supposed to be apolitical and I'm not clear that the Trump administration entirely understands that, you know, your intelligence directors are not supposed to be supporting your policies. They're supposed to be providing the intelligence and information you need to kind of make your policies and execute them. But they're not supposed to be out there advocating for you and campaigning for you and whatever else you want them to do.
As for Trump's vulnerabilities, I mean, it's hard to say. There's the political vulnerability. Is it there yet? I don't know. And, you know, at what point do more and more Republicans in Congress say, hey, you know, maybe we should - we shouldn't - we should be more aggressive about this Russia stuff? Because ultimately, you know, the criminal investigation is going on forever, and it's going to be a long time and who knows what it results? But a lot of this in the Senate and the House, these are political issues, you know, and these are political debates they're going to have about how far to go in what they find out and what they write and what they determine kind of happened in the election.
GROSS: So apparently, President Trump at a meeting with Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., he told them that we had great intelligence about ISIS. And he apparently was telling them things that he should not have been telling them. And then when he was in the Middle East, he said I didn't tell them that it came from Israel (laughter) thus telling everybody that it came from Israel. And apparently in the process, he may have burned the agent, probably an Israeli agent, who provided the information. So do you think that there are people within the American intelligence community who are reluctant to give information to the president now fearing that he can't be trusted to keep it secret?
ROSENBERG: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it's not entirely their choice. But yeah, they're definitely reluctant. And look, when when Trump and kind of his people or his supporters talk about the deep state they've taken to talking about - you know, the deep state is out to get Trump, and they mean the intelligence agencies, the defense people who were kind of behind the string - behind the scene, pull the strings. There's no deep state in the U.S. That's a fanciful concept. But what there are is both political appointees and career people who are seeing things on a regular basis that they think are totally out of line. And they believe that the internal mechanisms for fixing those things or rectifying those problems are not working. And so they are leaking, and they're leaking a lot. I think that's pretty obvious to everyone at this point. The Trump White House and the rest of the government is not - is full of holes.
And these, you know, they have upset a tremendous amount of people. And some of that's not a bad thing. I mean, Trump came in here and said, we're going to break how things work in Washington. And that's not necessarily a bad thing at all. But, you know, when you're getting in the Oval Office and being incredibly chummy with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador and sharing intelligence that came from Israel - and that Israel expressly told the U.S., do not share - they even said do not share with Britain, you know, who Israel's close with. So sharing with the Russians was just totally out of line.
And our understanding is that Trump didn't tell the Russians it was Israel. And he didn't tell them that much. But he gave them enough details that the Israelis believed they could figure it out and that other Americans saw this - saw reports of this meeting, believed the Russians could figure out. And then if the Russians figured it out, it would go straight to Iran. And then the Iranians would know more about Israeli capabilities, which, you know, if you're in intelligence, that's valuable intelligence to begin with.
And now remember, you know, we were getting some pushback on this, saying, well, you know, he didn't say Israel. So, you know, why do you think he knew it? I'm like, you know, if we - if a bunch of journalists can quickly figure out that this stuff came from Israel, the Russians can do it, too, you know. It's not that hard.
GROSS: My guest is Matthew Rosenberg, who covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times. After a break, he'll tell us about how his investigative reporting from Afghanistan led him to be detained, interrogated and then expelled from the country. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Matthew Rosenberg, who covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times. Before that, he reported from Afghanistan.
So before we end, I want to change directions for a moment and ask you about Afghanistan and why you were thrown out. You were officially thrown out for reporting that was divisive and contrary to the national interest to security and to the stability of Afghanistan. And you were accused of falsely attributing your opinion to high-level government officials. So what was their gripe against you?
ROSENBERG: So I think there were a few different gripes. My falsely attributing my opinion to high-level officials was actually sources that were named in a story, including President Karzai's national security adviser and his interior minister. So it was a kind of strange accusation to make because I had those guys on tape saying what they said. But so be it. And you know what? - Karzai, I think, for a long time - it was many years coming - had grown incredibly resentful of the U.S. and had come, like a lot of foreigners, to see the American media as this extension of the U.S. government and particularly The New York Times. So there was this bigger issue with the Times coverage.
And I think for Karzai, it especially stung because we were probably closest to his worldview. He's kind of this liberal - you know, at least he saw himself that way - and so to read in our pages stories about him that were incredibly critical, I think really stung. And he eventually began - came to see us all as, like, you know, basically American spies, at least to a degree. In my case, there were a few things that we'd broken that he was deeply unhappy about.
In 2013, we'd kind of written about this slush fund the CIA had been running for him for 10 years. Every month they would drop off cash - like, 500 grand to $2 million in backpacks, suitcases, sometimes, like, plastic shopping bags. And that would be used to kind of run this patronage network that Karzai really governed through. Once that story broke, he just admitted it. He said, yep, it's true, and, you know, that's what we've been doing. But they were furious about that. And so Karzai, who'd actually had an incredibly admirable record on press freedoms, decided, you know, you got to go.
So first, they dragged me to the attorney general's office and kind of interrogated me, which was odd because this was supposed to be a friendly conversation. Then we left, and they announced I wasn't allowed to leave the country. And I remember (laughter) - sorry - I remember this because, for years, my parents - I mean, my poor parents have had to put up with me in Africa and covering, like, the invasion of Iraq and, you know, in South Asia. And they just had to put up with me being in dangerous places, and they were saints about it.
But by Afghanistan time, they were like, just send us an email every day. And my line to them had always been, like, you know, I work at The New York Times. Like, trust me. No news is good news. If you don't hear - if something happens to me, you'll be the first to hear about it. It'll be on the news. So if you don't hear from me, just assume it's all good.
So we leave the attorney general's office - this is in late August - and get back to the Times bureau. And suddenly, somebody at The AP calls me and said, hey, the attorney general's office just announced that you're not allowed to leave the country and that you have to stay here.
GROSS: This is the Afghanistan attorney general.
ROSENBERG: Yeah, yeah. And I was like, oh, shoot. Let me call my parents and warn them before the story breaks.
ROSENBERG: And there's this picture that the Times ran in the story of me, like, on the phone in our garden. I'm looking really tough. It was just me actually talking to my mother and father.
ROSENBERG: And the next frame is me wincing as I fake try to emote. I'm like, I can't deal with this right now.
ROSENBERG: And so that kind of went on. And then the next day, it was uncertain. And then they finally just said, OK. You got to leave the country. We're giving you 24 hours. They showed up at our house with, like, this truck full of guys - policemen with AK-47s. We're in the middle of having this fancy dinner party, and they give us this expulsion letter on which, I guess as a final insult, they spelled my name wrong. So...
GROSS: The first name or the second name?
ROSENBERG: And I do want to note that I got thrown out of a country for a story that I think ran on Page A12.
ROSENBERG: So - but it's the - you know. Look, I make jokes about it now, but it was hard. I mean, that was my second home for a long time.
GROSS: Yeah, look. Look, we're laughing. You were interrogated before you were expelled...
ROSENBERG: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I was...
GROSS: ...'Cause first you were banned from leaving the country. The day before you were expelled, you were...
GROSS: ...Banned from leaving the country, and you were interrogated. You did not know what the ending of that story was going to be on that day. It must have been pretty terrifying. What was the interrogation like?
ROSENBERG: So it was weird. They called us. The attorney general office calls us up, like, a few hours after the story popped up online. And they say, why don't you come over? We just want to have a friendly chat. So I go over there with - you know, we have a security adviser who's there. And we kind of - OK, we're going to go over there. And I go over there with my colleague Rod Nordland and one of our translators. And we go into this room. It's not as friendly as it was made out to be. They're asking who my sources are. They want me to sign something they've written in Dari, which I absolutely cannot read. And we're saying, look, we'll come back with a lawyer, but we're not going to do this. And they keep leaving the room, and our translator can overhear them talking about whether they should arrest me or not. They're talking to the actual attorney general who's talking to other people in the government. And finally, they let me leave. And then they announced that I wasn't allowed to leave the country. They didn't tell us that. They just kind of announced it publicly after we'd left the attorney general's office. But it was totally unnerving.
And at that point, we started talking to American embassy because apparently the American embassy had a whole system in which if Americans were arrested, they would try to - you would notify them immediately and they would try to intercept you when you got to the processing center to make sure you didn't get put into the general population of this place called Pul-e-Charkhi prison because that was just filled with Taliban and other people and even non-Taliban. There are people in there who are going to see a single American and you are just - you're just going be a victim. So let's put it that way. And so they give us all these phone numbers, who to call, what to do if they come and arrest me. That was, like, totally freaky. Like, that absolutely freaked me out.
And then, you know, finally, you know, when they said, well, OK, now you're leaving the country, I mean, that was a relief to a degree. But it was, you know - like, look, I'd spent in and out - I'd been in and out of there for six years. I'd been there previously in 2002. But I knew a lot of people there and had a lot of relationships. And they did eventually let me go back after the new president came to power, was elected, and that was kind of later that same year I went back. But by then, it was just uncomfortable. Some very senior intelligence official I know there in Afghan had told me I got to watch my back. A lot of people in government don't want you here.
And, you know, I think we quickly made, you know, the decision that this was just not a good place to be anymore, which, you know, I'm hoping one day we can all go back there. It's really a - it's a beautiful place and, you know, everybody in the world's friendly. I don't want to say Afghans are really friendly. I like Afghans. I know them - I know a bunch really well. I enjoy them. You know, it is - it's a wonderful place. And right now, it's in a very tough place and a very bad time.
GROSS: So in Afghanistan, you were interrogated, threatened with prison and then expelled because of your reporting. Are you concerned now about President Trump's threats to tighten the libel laws or to try to prosecute reporters who publish leaks?
ROSENBERG: I'm less concerned about the tightening the libel laws threat right now just because that's - you know, changing laws is incredibly difficult. And we've seen how well this White House works with Congress and gets things done. The prosecuting reporters for leaks is also difficult, but going after leakers is not. And that's something I think worries all of us and that we are going to great lengths to protect our sources. That's using encrypted email, encrypted communications apps. You know, I don't have - I've gone through my phones. I don't have the names of sources in my phones anymore, even in regular contacts. I don't write them down in notebooks anymore. I used, like, little code words I've created for all them if I have to or something. I - you know, or just do it from memory. But I just simply keep names out of everything because that's a real fear here.
There are already leak investigations going. They're going to be aggressive from what we can tell. The White House and parts of the DOJ, certainly, want them to be aggressive. And, you know, I think it's a real concern. You don't - you don't want to be involved in putting somebody in jail, even if you didn't do it directly. And some of these people are taking great risks to speak to us.
GROSS: Matthew Rosenberg, thank you so much for this interview, and thank you for your reporting.
ROSENBERG: Thanks for having me. This has been great.
GROSS: Matthew Rosenberg covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like yesterday's interview with Aziz Ansari, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
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