Senior U.S. officials were warned of imminent Russian military action in Crimea about a week before the troop movements that have sparked a major international crisis over Ukraine, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency tells NPR.
"I think for easily seven to 10 days leading up to the Russian troops as we see them now in the Crimea, we were providing very solid reporting ... where we move from one level of a condition of warning, which I would just describe ... as sort of moderate to one where we believe things are imminent," Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn tells Morning Edition in an interview airing Friday.
Barely a week after the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine accused Russia of sending troops into Crimea, a predominately Russian-speaking autonomous enclave that is home to the Kremlin's Black Sea Fleet. The action, which Moscow has yet to officially acknowledge, has pushed relations between Russia and the West to their lowest level in years.
Flynn, responding to criticism that the U.S. intelligence community was caught off guard by the Kremlin move, tells NPR's David Greene that U.S. intelligence is watching "some of the naval activities up around the key bases."
"We saw what has been referred to as an exercise inside of Russia, and we're paying very close attention to any additional activities of some of their key military forces," Flynn says.
Flynn also discusses Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked classified information and is now living in Moscow to avoid treason charges in the U.S. He says there's an ongoing debate in the intelligence community that asks: "What kinds of information did he touch, did he take — what do we know?"
The U.S. Army lieutenant general says he's most concerned that Snowden might have stolen sensitive information about intelligence and operational capabilities, technology, weapons systems and war plans.
"Does that knowledge get into the hands of our adversaries — in this case, of course, Russia?" Flynn says.
"We have to assume the worst case and then begin to make recommendations to our leadership about how do we mitigate some of the risks for what has been compromised," he says. "We are going to be dealing with this for many, many years, everything from changing how we operate, changing some of the procedures, techniques and tactics that we use."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
One member of the Senate, Arizona Republican John McCain, has criticized the U.S. intelligence community over Ukraine. He says they misread the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is just one topic that came up yesterday in an interview with one of this country's top intelligence officials. Lieutenant General Michael Flynn leads the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, which tracks other countries' militaries. General Flynn said Russia's aggressive moves in Ukraine did not take his agency by surprise.
GENERAL MICHAEL FLYNN: I think for easily seven to 10 days leading up to the Russian troops as we see them now in Crimea, we were providing very solid reporting on what I would describe as just strategic warning where we move from one level of sort of a condition of warning, which I would just describe for the audience as sort of moderate to one where we believe things are imminent. And we did that about a week prior to the events that unfolded really last Friday.
GREENE: Well before Putin even went to get military authorization...
FLYNN: Oh, yeah.
GREENE: You knew that he was up to something. You were warning the administration...
FLYNN: That's right. We, along with our other intelligence community partners, absolutely.
GREENE: So how do you respond then to lawmakers and others who are saying that the intelligence community was caught off-guard if you knew that Vladimir Putin sort of had something going in his head and was going to try something in Ukraine?
FLYNN: I think that, one, the evidence, if you will, is looked at, the results will show that there was good strategic warning provided to our decision makers in order to make the right kinds of decisions about what sort of policy actions may be taken.
GREENE: What are you picking up right now within the Russian military?
FLYNN: Well, I mean obviously the things that we're watching in the Crimea, some of the naval activities, you know, up and around the key bases. We saw, you know, we see some of what has been referred to as an exercise inside of Russia and we're playing very close attention to any additional activities of some of their key military forces that they do have, particularly in the southern military district that is in that region that we're all concerned about right now. So there is a lot of activity. What we are trying to pay attention to is are they being true to their word about it's an exercise versus something else.
GREENE: Let me ask you about 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 that most of what Snowden had access to was defense-related. What exactly are we talking about here?
FLYNN: We have certainly a debate within the IC right now about...
GREENE: The intelligence community.
FLYNN: Yeah, the intelligence community - about what kinds of information did he touch, what did he take, you know, 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, you know, of course, Russia.
GREENE: Now, defense capabilities - are we talking about U.S. war plans? Are we talking about, you know, 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's a chance that he has access to war plans, if he has access to the way we gather intelligence, I mean 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 risk that may come from what may have been compromised. This going to be one of those instances where we're going to be dealing with this for many, many years and, you now, 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.
GREENE: Do you think that Russia has access to the kind of materials that we're talking about here?
FLYNN: To the information that he got?
FLYNN: I mean you have to assume that they - if they don't have access, you have to assume that they are going to try to get access to it. So - and that would be very serious. That would be, you know, very serious. So we have to - if we assume that that's the case, and again, we really don't know, then we have to make some judgments, recommendations, about, you know, how to respond to that.
GREENE: I just want to ask you about Syria, a place that you obviously are looking very closely at right now. I'm curious, if I may, about the foreign fighters. I've seen you speak publicly before, suggesting that some people are going to Syria from the outside, and there are actual training camps being set up in that country. What exactly are you talking about?
FLYNN: Yeah. So the types of training camps that are there are similar to what we saw when we were in Iraq, and I think even, to a degree, not as sophisticated as some of the ones we used to see in Afghanistan, but certainly the ones we saw in Iraq. The foreign element is there fighting. The real problem is, is when they decide to depart, and we see some of that happening in back into Europe.
Certainly we're concerned about those that may return to the United States. But we, you know, we assess that the foreign element that's in Syria right now represents about 50 countries around the world. It's more than we saw in Iraq. Definitely.
GREENE: It strikes me, if you have jihadists who are coming from elsewhere to a place, in this case Syria, training, and you're seeing them begin to leave, to go to places like Europe, maybe the United States. It really reminds me of what we heard about Afghanistan before the September 11th attacks. So if that is the situation right now, are we safer today than we were on September 11, 2001?
FLYNN: I think these al-Qaida franchise groups have clearly evolved into a much more dangerous strain. The foreign presence in Syria, where they are fighting, they are learning and they are growing stronger. You know, in my travels in Europe, in some of the capitals and some of the partnerships that the DIA has with our military intelligence partners there, that is their number one concern.
GREENE: General Flynn, thanks so much the time and for coming in today. We really appreciate it.
FLYNN: Okay, great, David. And it's great - I really appreciate what NPR does for informing America.
GREENE: Thank you. We appreciate that. That was Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. He's the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and he joined us in our studios yesterday. And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.