This is a special report from the AIM Center for Investigative Journalism
Before he left for Moscow to speak at a Russia Today (RT) conference, the former chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) inked a deal to write a book about how to defeat America’s enemies in the Middle East. The title of the forthcoming book by Lt. General Michael T. Flynn (Ret.) is, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies.
But Flynn’s attendance at the RT “gala celebration,” including a special seat at the head table at the anniversary dinner, suggests that this retired officer, who attained a three-star rank during a 33-year Army career, views Russia as a potential U.S. ally in the war on terror.
In announcing his new book, Flynn said, “I am writing this book for two reasons: first, to show that the war is being waged against us by enemies this administration has forbidden us to describe: radical Islamists. Second, to lay out a winning strategy that is not passively relying on technology and drone attacks to do the job. We could lose this war; in fact, right now we are losing. The Field of Fight will give my view on how to win.”
We need military officials willing to fight and win. But Flynn’s participation in the RT anniversary celebration raises questions about what the DIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies know, or think they know, about the Russian role in global conflict and RT’s role in propaganda and disinformation.
What we can say for sure at this point is that it was not an accident that the former head of the DIA showed up in Moscow to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a TV channel that serves the interests of Moscow’s intelligence establishment. Flynn was right in the middle of the “Field of Fight,” and he must surely have known what he was getting into. It’s not called KGB-TV for nothing.
RT’s Disinformation Themes
In trying to attract and confuse an American audience, RT regularly features Marxist and radical commentators in the U.S. such as Noam Chomsky, Gloria La Riva of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and 9/11 “inside job” advocate and radio host Alex Jones. It is preferable for the Russians to use foreigners, especially Americans, to make their propaganda points. Flynn is probably the most important American ever snared in RT’s web. He has added propaganda value because of his impressive background and years of service in the U.S. Army.
The RT conference was held at a time when the Russian regime was determined to divert global attention away from its military intervention on behalf of its long-time client state of Syria. Research analyst Hugo Spaulding of the Institute for the Study of War notes that Russia’s current air campaign in Syria “is focused on targeting Syrian armed opposition groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rather than ISIS.” The Syrian Network for Human Rights reports that Russian military strikes in Syria have killed hundreds of civilians during the course of bombing hospitals, bakeries, and markets. The result has been increasing refugee flows into Turkey and Europe.
RT, however, promotes a different version of reality, a “false narrative,” as Spaulding calls it. Indeed, that is the purpose of RT—to whitewash military aggression by the Russian state and focus attention on what the United States and its allies are supposedly doing in the world.
“Russian Air Force destroys 29 ISIS camps in Syria in 24 hours,” was the headline over a typical RT story about Syria. The channel portrays Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spoke to the RT 10th anniversary dinner, as a devout Christian fighting radical Islam.
However, Russia’s open war on the ethnic Turkmen fighting the Assad regime in Syria was something that NATO member Turkey could not ignore. The Turkish shoot-down of a Russian war plane flying through Turkey’s airspace became major news and the first incident in a developing confrontation that shows no sign of ending. RT immediately went to work claiming that Turkey was benefiting from ISIS oil. The U.S. Treasury Department countered with evidence showing that Syria’s Assad is buying ISIS oil through a Russian agent.
The Honey Trap
In addition to using Americans as props and pawns, RT relies heavily on glitzy graphics and beautiful women as anchors and correspondents to promote its propaganda. RT knows what it’s doing, having run a story titled, “From Russia with lust: Femme fatal Anna Chapman, to Russian mail-order brides, to our very own RT correspondents. Americans are infatuated with Russian women!”
It is noteworthy that RT openly cited Chapman, a sexy Russian spy who was seducing an unnamed cabinet official in the Obama administration in an effort to obtain classified information. She was caught, pleaded guilty, and was expelled from the U.S. in 2010. However, she returned to Russia and was honored with an award by none other than Vladimir Putin himself. Chapman had reportedly tried to seduce NSA defector Edward Snowden.
One of RT’s attractive female anchors, Sophie Shevardnadze, the granddaughter of former Soviet bureaucrat Eduard Shevardnadze, was tasked with interviewing Flynn during the conference, which was held at Moscow’s historic five-star luxury Metropol Hotel. Flynn appeared on a special edition of her RT show, Sophie & Co, where he appeared grateful for the opportunity, saying, “…thank you so much for inviting me and having me here.”
In her interview with Flynn, Shevardnadze did not disappoint, echoing the Russian line on the Middle East by blaming the U.S. and its allies for conflict and violence. Rather than attack Putin’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria, Flynn responded by saying that the U.S. and Russia have “to move forward” together. Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from July 2012 to April 2014, said on RT that “…in order for us to not move to a greater level of conflict between the great nations of the world, we have to come to grips of how do we work together, how do we take interests, interests that are converging. So we have a whole set of converging interests that we are seeing right now, and unless we understand it, we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to make tactical mistakes that are going to lead to strategic consequences.”
He claimed that Russia has faced terrorism from Muslims within, as if Russia, like the U.S., is a victim of radical Islam. He said, “…there are some in this country that know this enemy from having dealt with it in Chechnya and Dagestan and other places. This is a very, very deadly enemy that we’re facing, and it’s not just hundreds or thousands, these numbers are much greater.”
In fact, as veteran Moscow correspondent David Satter and others have documented, what sometimes appears to be Islamic terrorism in Russia can be carried out with the approval—or even at the direction of—the Kremlin, in order to justify greater repression by the Putin regime. For example, the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings that served to solidify Vladimir Putin’s control of the country, and justify the war against the former Soviet republic of Chechnya, were proven to be the work of agents of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, a successor to the old KGB.
Moscow’s Role in Terrorism
Could Moscow in fact be behind much of the conflict in the Middle East, including the rise of ISIS? If Flynn has rejected this theory out of hand, it wouldn’t be the first time in history that the U.S. intelligence community failed to understand and appreciate Moscow’s role in international terrorism.
Flynn’s announced co-author, or collaborator, on his new book, Michael Ledeen, has a deep understanding of the Middle East, knowledge of how the old Soviet Union operated, and how remnants of that regime guide Russian foreign policy today. Ledeen worked as a consultant to the National Security Council, Department of State, and Department of Defense during the Reagan administration, when Soviet involvement in global terrorism was highlighted and exposed.
Ledeen’s 2003 book, The War Against the Terror Masters, describes the impact of communist disinformation and deception in the conduct of foreign policy.
Ledeen wrote about the discovery of Soviet moles in the CIA, such as Aldrich Ames and Harold Nicholson, and the discovery of one such mole in the FBI, Robert Hanssen. Ledeen writes, “The discovery that Soviet moles had been at work at the highest levels of the American intelligence community had particular importance in our efforts to combat the terror masters. Agency [CIA] analysts had long insisted that there was no conclusive evidence of Soviet involvement in international terrorism. One now had to wonder if that conclusion had been fed to us through the KGB moles in our midst.” Ledeen writes about how the intelligence community ignored inside information provided by Soviet defectors, such as the Mitrokhin documents, which exposed the nature of Soviet-backed international terrorism, as well as the identities of “thousands of foreign agents—Western politicians, journalists, movie makers, military officers, and diplomats.”
Soviet KGB operations continued after the “collapse” of the Soviet Union in the hands of its successor agencies, the FSB and SVR. The book Comrade J examines the activities of Russian master spy, Sergei Tretyakov, who handled all Russian intelligence operations against the U.S. while serving under cover from 1995 to 2000 at Russia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
Since intelligence operations continued as if nothing had happened, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, why isn’t it reasonable to assume that the Russians maintained contacts with international terrorist groups?
To his credit, Flynn has been very critical of the role of Russia’s close ally in the Middle East—Iran. In June 2015 testimony, after his retirement, he cited Iranian cooperation with North Korea, China and Russia, and pointed with alarm to the “resurgence of Russian and Chinese influence” in the Middle East. He said Russian assistance to Iran was a part of the problem, noting that “After all, the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr is Russian-built, the two countries work very closely together in Syria, and Russia is providing Iran with an effective antiaircraft system that could be deployed against any aircraft seeking to destroy the nuclear program.”
However, in the RT interview with Sophie Shevardnadze, Flynn’s criticism of Iran was couched in terms of getting all of the Arab and Muslim countries in the region to behave. He merely said “…Iran cannot continue to go the way it’s going” because it was contributing to the conflict.
The Birth of RT
The Russians have gotten far more sophisticated, especially in the field of global propaganda and information. But the reality of what is happening behind the scenes came to public attention when two RT employees, Elizabeth Wahl and Sara Firth, resigned in disgust at the propaganda that they were ordered to spew on the air. For example, the Russian managers ordered “news” that was designed to depict the Ukrainian government in a bad light and mask Russian military interference in that country, including the shoot-down and destruction of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was carrying almost 300 people.
At the RT anniversary dinner on Thursday night, Putin made no mention of those embarrassing resignations. Instead he presented the channel as a free and independent news entity featuring “creative” people who are serving the global public interest. He said to his audience (including Lt. Gen. Flynn), “You compete on the same playing field as international news giants, and are already beating them according to many parameters. In some regions of the world, you have higher ratings than traditional news organizations that have long been operating in the international information market.”
The speech was laughable, considering the Kremlin funding and control of the channel. Yet, it was posted on the president of Russia’s website, along with photographs of the affair. Moscow is obviously proud of what it has accomplished, with the cooperation of foreigners who appear on the channel and give it credibility.
The participation of a former chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the event was a major coup for RT. Film and photos of his participation will help the Russians in their ongoing propaganda campaign to depict the state-funded entity as simply a respectable source of alternative news and opinion that offers different views.
Showing the continuity between the old Soviet Union and Russia, former Soviet President Gorbachev was in attendance at the Thursday night dinner. He “congratulated RT and expressed his admiration for the network,” the channel reported. Outside the event, Gorbachev called the channel a “big success.”
The Case of Edward Snowden
Flynn’s attendance at the RT conference was shocking not only because Putin is an evil ruler whose regime murders opposition figures and truly independent journalists, but because Flynn was critical in the past about the damage done by NSA defector Edward Snowden, who escaped to Russia and now lives under Putin’s protection.
Flynn said in January 2014 that Snowden’s disclosures have caused “grave damage to our national security.” He added that “the greatest cost” of his disclosures will be “the cost in human lives on tomorrow’s battlefield or in someplace where we will put our military forces…when we ask them to go into harm’s way.”
It appears that the information stolen by Snowden has contributed significantly to the advances of the enemies and adversaries of the United States. Since his defection, Russia conducted a surprise invasion of Ukraine; Communist China mounted a series of cyber warfare attacks; and ISIS has gained ground in the Middle East and around the world. The bloody terrorist assaults in Paris and San Bernardino were carried out by plotters who clearly benefitted from Snowden’s revelations and were careful to plan their attacks using encrypted communications apps, such as Telegram, which was developed by a Russian, Pavel Durov.
RT has consistently portrayed Snowden as a whistleblower, and ran what was apparently intended as a humorous promotional ad in connection with the 10th anniversary celebration. It imagined that the NSA defector would return to the U.S. and be elected U.S. president. The ad shows an elderly Barack Obama in the year 2035 complaining about RT’s “propaganda.”
Snowden apparently wasn’t at the RT celebration, but former Russia Today TV star, Julian Assange, appeared via videotape from the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He was interviewed by the well-known American “progressive” commentator, Thom Hartmann, who is paid by Moscow to host an RT show that appeals to liberals and left-wingers. Incredibly, the issue being discussed was the “right to privacy”—a right that doesn’t exist in Russia itself. Assange was the recipient of massive leaks from former U.S. Army analyst Bradley Manning, who is becoming a woman named Chelsea while serving a prison term for espionage.
Obama’s Support for Terrorism
One issue raised in RT’s interview of Flynn was a heavily-censored 2012 DIA memo that has been interpreted by many as confirmation that the U.S. and some of its allies had armed the terrorist groups in the Middle East that eventually became ISIS. According to the memo, these groups were seen as effective in countering the Russia/Iran/Syria axis in the area. The memo also described China as backing the Syrian regime.
Flynn’s criticism of this policy since he left the DIA has been made in different venues, including in interviews with Al Jazeera and Der Spiegel. As Flynn has correctly indicated, it is apparent that Obama’s policy in the Middle East has been a disaster. The Benghazi terrorist attacks in Libya, which cost the lives of four Americans, came to pass after the U.S. “switched sides in the war on terror,” as a report from the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi has demonstrated. But just as the Obama administration must be held accountable for arming terrorists, so too must the role of the Putin regime in fostering terrorism be exposed.
In addition to the evidence of an FSB role in domestic terrorism, a defector from the Russian intelligence agency has just confirmed Russia’s role in creating ISIS by recruiting former members of Saddam Hussein’s security services. The former FSB officer told Ukrainian journalist Andriy Tsaplienko that “the Russian special services believed that if a terrorist organization was set up as an alternative to Al-Qaeda and it created problems for the United States as Donbas does for Ukraine now, it would be quite good.” Donbas is the name for the region of Ukraine that has been the staging area for terrorists from Russia, organized by the FSB, to seize territory and undermine Ukraine’s central government. Once again, Russia has demonstrated its commitment to global conflict rather than peace and reconciliation.
The FSB defector said that in order to create ISIS, the Russians selected former officers of the Iraqi army and members of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. All of them had graduated from Moscow-based “educational institutions,” he said, referring to the time when the Saddam Hussein regime was in a close alliance with the Soviet Union. The overthrow of the Saddam regime was a huge blow to Russian influence in the Middle East. Iran and the Assad regime are the only firm Russian allies left in the region.
Russians Fighting for Terrorist Groups
The Daily Beast ran an article, “Russians Are Joining ISIS in Droves.” But the idea advanced by The Daily Beast that these terrorists are a threat to Russia is not borne out by the evidence. It seems like they are more of a threat to the rest of the world, especially the United States. In what could be seen as an observation or a threat, Putin himself publicly acknowledged that there are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Russians fighting for ISIS. By contrast, FBI Director James Comey has estimated that approximately 250 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join ISIS. These potential terrorists are believed to be threats to America.
On December 3rd, the U.S. Justice Department announced that Irek Ilgiz Hamidullin, a Russian national and former Russian army tank commander, had been sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison for conspiring to kill U.S. soldiers and bring down an American helicopter, as well as for “conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and several other charges relating to an attack that he led against U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan in November 2009.”
It is telling that the U.S., not the Russian authorities, prosecuted him. Perhaps the U.S. was reluctant to turn him over to Moscow. This is reminiscent of the case of the Russian arms dealer and former Soviet military officer Viktor Bout, the legendary “Merchant of Death” who is serving a 25-year sentence in U.S. federal prison. Bout was lured out of Russia, where he was living openly, and arrested in a sting operation in Thailand by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Some of the weapons Bout was selling were for communist Colombian terrorists to use against Americans.
RT has covered the Bout case relentlessly, always in a manner critical of the United States for apprehending and prosecuting him. RT has even highlighted how Bout’s wife has set up The Road Home Foundation to facilitate the return to Russia of Bout and other Russians convicted of crimes abroad.
In another sensational case, the Boston Marathon bombing was carried out by two brothers from Russia, but the Russian connection was immediately discounted on the ground that the Russians had reportedly warned U.S. authorities about the bombers’ travels back and forth to the old Soviet Union. Curiously, RT ran claims by their mother back in Russia that the terrorists were “set up” by the FBI.
It is indeed strange how a Russian connection seems to surface in some of these most sensational terrorism cases.
In the more recent San Bernardino attack, we have a case of two Russian beauties married to Muslim men. A Russian blonde beauty had married into the terrorist’s family, and another Russian woman had married Enrique Marquez, a convert to Islam who bought the weapons used in the massacre.
In his June 2015 testimony, Flynn acknowledged that the U.S. intelligence community has had a “mixed” record in one important area—“tracking clandestine nuclear weapons programs.” In this context, it is significant that in his December 9 testimony to Congress, FBI director James Comey made a passing reference to how the bureau had disrupted “a nuclear threat in Moldova,” an Eastern European country and former Soviet republic. There is much more to the story and it directly involves the criminal regime in Moscow.
The story came to light in October, when the Associated Press disclosed that “gangs with suspected Russian connections” had tried on several occasions to “sell radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.” AP said the latest known case came in February this year, “when a smuggler offered a huge cache of deadly cesium—enough to contaminate several city blocks—and specifically sought a buyer from the Islamic State group.”
In a follow-up report, the Center for Public Integrity said the nuclear material in the various cases “appeared to have the same origin—a restricted military installation in Russia.” It added that “no one in the West knows exactly who has this nuclear explosive material, and where they may be.”
The group concluded, “It’s a mystery that so far has stumped America’s best spying efforts, in no small measure because the government of Russian president Vladimir Putin has refused to provide needed information on the case—or even to acknowledge that some of the country’s nuclear explosive materials are missing.”
Don’t look for RT to get to the bottom of this.