Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, announced his plans to retire in a memo sent to agency employees on Wednesday. The announcement came following recent speculation that Flynn would be stepping down following a rocky tenure at the agency, which provides battlefield intelligence to military forces and has increasingly been expanding its mission into the clandestine world of human espionage, and butting heads with the CIA, the traditional lord of that domain, in the process.
When Flynn came to his job in 2012, he was seen as an innovator, and even a gadfly, who would help take the DIA forward as wars wound down in Afghanistan and Iraq and the agency searched for a new mission. But Flynn butted heads with senior Pentagon officials and has been criticized for failing to follow through on some of the plans he set out for the agency, such as focusing more on social and cultural analysis on the battlefield and trying to provide more strategic insights for senior leaders.
"He has been regarded as relatively ineffective in that job," a former intelligence official said. "There's a big challenge with the end of two wars, and where does the DIA go now, and he really didn't come to grips with that."
The Washington Post reported that Flynn was pushed out, following mounting pressure from the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, himself a former military intelligence officer. A Pentagon spokesman said that Flynn's retirement had "been planned for some time," and that he would retire by this fall. But former officials said Flynn had not been expected to leave until next year.
Flynn made waves in military and intelligence circles in 2010 when he co-authored a paper at an influential Washington think tank that criticized intelligence agencies for spending too much time trying to understand insurgent groups in Afghanistan and largely ignoring the social and cultural currents among the Afghan people that were influencing the country's future. Flynn said that U.S. intelligence agencies were consequently only "marginally relevant" to the strategy in Afghanistan. As a consequence, senior leaders in the Pentagon and the administration didn't fully appreciate the facts on the ground, he wrote.
Flynn's critique was a rare public rebuke of the way the intelligence agencies worked, and it was given extra weight because it came from an active-duty Army general who had worked in special operations and seen the usefulness -- or lack thereof -- of U.S. intelligence on the battlefield. Some officials saw the paper as a rallying call for a new way of gathering and analyzing intelligence in the military, in part by relying less on the CIA, and felt that it helped to position Flynn as the man to lead that effort.
But former officials said Flynn was never able to translate his vision for focusing on what he called the "human terrain" of the battlefield. "His paper was brilliant, and he was right that the CIA in particular had failed to provide adequate intelligence to the military. But Flynn was put at DIA to do things, and I think he's an ideas guy and not an implementer," the former official said.
Flynn was known to clash with the Pentagon's undersecretary for intelligence, Michael Vickers, who had been an ally in Flynn's quest for reforms, but wanted to build a human spying program that more closely mirrored that of the CIA, where Vickers used to work on paramilitary operations. Rumors had also persisted that Flynn micromanaged his staff, including reprimanding some employees for dressing inappropriately at the office and sending them home to change clothes.
Joining Flynn in retiring will be his deputy, David Shedd. In a joint letter to DIA employees, Flynn and Shedd said they'd helped to transform the agency and defended their work building up a clandestine intelligence-gathering program. "Today and tomorrow DIA is clearly postured to achieve even greater heights due to the establishment of our fully integrated intelligence centers, enhancements to all-source analysis and building the Defense Clandestine Service," Flynn and Shedd wrote. Those intelligence centers helped integrate the DIA's analysis and collection programs and provided intelligence "from the tactical to the strategic level," they said.
Army Lt. Gen. Mary Legere is a leading candidate to replace Flynn. She would become the first woman to head the DIA, and would join a growing cadre of women at the senior ranks of U.S. intelligence. Women hold top positions at the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and they hold deputy or senior-level posts in other agencies, including the CIA and the NSA.
Legere was also a longshot candidate to be the next NSA director, a job that ultimately went to Navy Adm. Michael Rogers.
Through a spokesperson, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel thanked Flynn and Shedd. Hagel "appreciates the service of these two dedicated and professional leaders, and appreciates their contributions to the intelligence community and Defense Department," said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.
Mandel Ngan / AFP