Michael Flynn and his QAnon followers now pose a genuine national security threat, extremism experts say

·8-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Days after former Trump national security adviser and retired Army General Michael Flynn endorsed the idea of a military coup against the US government, the army is officially doing absolutely nothing about it. Veterans and extremism experts are warning that the decision to let his remarks go unpunished amounts to ignoring a serious national security threat.

Flynn spent 23 days at the top of America’s national security apparatus before being fired after lying to then-Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he’d had with Russia’s ambassador to the US; he then received a presidential pardon absolving him of charges that he’d lied to the FBI about those same conversations. Since then, he has spent his years in exile from US national security circles establishing himself as an icon of the QAnon movement.

The retired Lieutenant General even went so far as to post a video of himself swearing an “oath” to the movement — which holds that the federal government is secretly controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles — to mark Independence Day 2020. And when he appeared as a speaker at a QAnon-themed conference in Texas over Memorial Day weekend, Flynn marked the occasion by telling an audience member — a self-described Marine Corps veteran — that a military-backed coup of the type that overturned Myanmar’s last election “should happen here”.

Although Flynn left active military service when he was forced to retire in 2014, the commission he holds as an “Officer of the United States” remains active until he either dies or resigns it. This means that, despite his retirement from active duty, he is still entitled to be addressed by his rank, and to receive military benefits in addition to his retirement pay (which can amount to more than $100,000 each year). In exchange for these privileges, Flynn remains subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which provides for recall of retirees to active duty to face a court-martial if ordered.

But the Army isn’t interested in punishing Flynn for advocating a violent overthrow of the government he once swore to protect “from all enemies, foreign and domestic”. In a statement, a US Army spokesperson said that the army is “aware of the statements [Flynn] made May 30 and June 1,” but is “not investigating these statements further at this time”.

Such reticence would be consistent with recent practice. The US Armed Services rarely exercises the right to recall retired servicemembers to active duty to face courts-martial. And as a retiree, Flynn could argue that his statements were protected speech under the First Amendment. He would also almost certainly characterize any attempt to prosecute him under the UCMJ as part of a push to silence a political opponent of the current administration.

But the decision to leave Flynn alone is alarming extremism experts, who say his status as a retired three-star general and as a central figure in the QAnon movement make him a clear and present danger to US national security.

“He’s not a political opponent — he’s a retired military officer who is now the public face of a conspiracy movement that the FBI has labeled a dangerous terrorist threat,” said Dr Colin Clarke, director of policy and research at The Soufan Group. Clarke, whose research focuses on terrorism, insurgencies, and criminal networks, added that it would not be at all unreasonable for the army to recall Flynn for court-martial because of the QAnon movement’s role in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

“Had that monumental event not occurred, you would not be wanting to get into policing [language or opinions], but that event happened. He played a key role in the QAnon movement and is still out there talking about having a coup,” he said. “Given all the evidence taken together, that makes this serious.”

Jared Holt, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab who oversees domestic extremism research, also believes that Flynn’s status as a messianic figure in the QAnon mythology makes his statements worth investigating to determine if they violate military law.

“Mike Flynn is a folk hero in the QAnon movement — he’s an individual that QAnon followers believe represents this existential fight that they believe is going on between pro-Trump forces and the so-called ‘Deep State,’ so he has a lot of sway,” said Holt. Flynn’s rhetoric this past weekend is “particularly concerning,” he continued, because of his capacity to inspire lone wolf-type actors.

“It only takes one person to act out in a way that is tragic, to cause a real problem. And for that reason, I think we have to take what he says seriously, even if we don’t take it literally,” Holt added.

So far, the Defense Department has not been taking Flynn seriously or literally. When asked about the matter on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said he was not aware of any efforts to address Flynn’s recent statements and referred further questions to the army.

For Clarke, the lack of action from the Defense Department does not bode well for the US government’s efforts to root out domestic extremism. Ignoring the threat from people like Flynn could allow the problem to metastasize. “I think that’s been the strategy… to just downplay and dismiss it, and ignore it. And frankly, I think that’s worked so far. But if you continue to have incidents like this, I’m not sure how much longer you can employ that strategy,” he said.

Glenn Kirshner, a former federal prosecutor who served as an Army Judge-Advocate for six years, posited that one reason the military could be loath to recall and prosecute Flynn is a recent court decision which muddied the waters on whether the military can recall retirees for courts-martial. But Kirschner said the potential for people like Flynn to inspire violence means there should be action to contain the threat. He stressed that the federal government needs to start tackling crimes committed by former Trump administration officials head-on.

“Because of his status as a former flag officer, I think it inspires allegiance to the big lie. It inspires allegiance to conspiracy theories of the election being stolen, it erodes allegiance to the Constitution, which is all about supporting your duly elected government and supporting and defending the Constitution,” he said. “But what he was advocating for is in direct contravention of the Constitution.”

“Whether you can say he could incite imminent violence, which is the difference between speech that’s protected by the First Amendment and speech that’s not… we could could debate that,” he continued. “But we’ve reached a critical mass, in my estimation. The big lie continues to gain momentum, and the only way to stop that momentum… is to begin to charge the former leadership of this country… who we can prove committed crimes. We need a federal solution, and if we don’t get one, then the big lie will win because it’s snowballing among people who are willing to engage in violence to achieve their ends.”

Paul Rieckhoff, a veterans advocate and activist who founded Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, also said the Defense Department should take action against Flynn, calling the failure to do so “unimaginably dangerous”.

“Flynn has designated himself the king of the White Walkers… He is viewed as an almost mythical figure within the QAnon community, because he is really politicizing and cannibalizing his rank for… dangerous and political purposes,” he said.

Flynn’s status as a retired three-star flag officer, despite his fall from grace under Trump, still carries significant credibility within both the veterans’ community and the general public, Rieckhoff explained. And because many involved in the January 6 insurrection are still talking about using violence to return Trump to power, he said the Defense Department should be looking at Flynn no differently than they would have looked at an insurgent leader in Iraq during the US occupation.

“Any insurrection — or even any insurgency — is going to need significant mythical symbolic figures, and Mike Flynn is probably second only to Donald Trump. So I think it’s dangerous, I think it’s unprecedented, and I think that the military can’t keep blowing this off,” he said. “That they’re not looking into this… is stunning to me, because it’s like saying they’re not looking into the Oath Keepers on January 5 when it was so obvious….If he was on the ground in Iraq, we’d be sending SEAL Team Six after him… He’s taunting the entire federal government. He’s taunting the FBI. He’s taunting the CIA. He’s taunting the Pentagon. And he’s saying [he] can call for an armed insurrection, a military coup, and you can’t touch [him]. So I think that we have to stop dismissing him as a kook or a loon or whatever, and understand that he is a legitimate national security threat.”

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