US and UK officials were troubled by Moscow contacts and encounter with woman linked to Russian spy agency records
US intelligence officials had serious concerns about Michael Flynn’s appointment as the White House national security adviser because of his history of contacts with Moscow and his encounter with a woman who had trusted access to Russian spy agency records, the Guardian has learned.
US and British intelligence officers discussed Flynn’s “worrisome” behaviour well before his appointment last year by Donald Trump, multiple sources have said.
They raised concerns about Flynn’s ties to Russia and his perceived obsession with Iran. They were also anxious about his capacity for “linear thought” and some actions that were regarded as highly unusual for a three-star general.
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Flynn was forced to quit in February, after 24 days in the job. He resigned when it emerged he had lied to the vice-president, Mike Pence. Flynn said he had not discussed lifting US sanctions on Russia with Sergei Kislyak, Moscow’s US ambassador, but later admitted this was untrue.
On Thursday, Flynn indicated he was willing to testify before the FBI and congressional committees about potential links between the Trump campaign and Russia in exchange for immunity. In a statement released by his lawyer, Flynn said he had a story to tell but was seeking “assurances against unfair prosecution”.
The house oversight committee is examining the general’s activities before he joined Trump’s White House. It is likely to focus on Flynn’s contacts with foreign nationals and will also look at fees he may have received from foreign governments, including Russia and Turkey, and linked entities.
The committee will further consider what security vetting Flynn received before he took up the job. It is seeking information from five senior officials including the FBI director, James Comey. Earlier this month, Comey confirmed his agency was investigating possible collusion between Trump and Russia to influence the outcome of the US election.
Donald Trump with Flynn in December 2016. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters
Flynn’s erratic conduct had troubled US intelligence officials for some time, multiple sources have told the Guardian.
One concern involved an encounter with a Russian-British graduate student, Svetlana Lokhova, whom Flynn met on a trip to Cambridge in February 2014.
At the time, Flynn was one of the top US spies and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which provides information to the Pentagon about the military strengths and intentions of other states and terrorist groups.
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A historian and a leading expert on Soviet espionage, Lokhova has claimed to have unique access to previously classified Soviet-era material in Moscow. She says her forthcoming book makes groundbreaking revelations about Soviet military intelligence operations run by the GRU – Russia’s military spy agency.
Western historians say access to intelligence agency records in Moscow has been severely restricted under Vladimir Putin. One Russian historian who has written extensively on Russian intelligence said the situation with the GRU was “a complete disaster”.
“At least with the FSB and SVR [domestic and foreign spy agencies] there are places you can apply to view the archives, but with the GRU there’s not even a place to apply,” the historian said.
“Maybe two or three military historians have been allowed in. Sometimes there are duplicates in other archives, but getting into the actual GRU archive is basically impossible.”
Flynn and Lokhova were introduced to each other at the end of a dinner attended by 20 guests who included Sir Richard Dearlove – the former head of MI6 – and Prof Christopher Andrew, the official MI5 historian.
Flynn says the meeting with Lokhova was “incidental” and lasted just 20 minutes. However, Andrew has said Flynn invited Lokhova to accompany him on his next official visit to Moscow to help with simultaneous translation. The trip fell through soon afterwards because of Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Andrew wrote in the Sunday Times.
Flynn in the Oval Office with Trump and aide Steve Bannon in January 2017. Photograph: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The Guardian understands Flynn and Lokhova remained in email contact, conducted through an unclassified channel. In one email exchange described by Andrew, Flynn signed himself as “General Misha”, Russian for Mike.
Lokhova also listed Flynn as one of four referees who would provide selective endorsements for her book, which is expected to detail how Russian spies penetrated the US atomic weapons programme.
Though there is no suggestion of impropriety, Flynn would have been expected to “self report” any conversation with an unknown person, especially with links to an “adversary” country, such as Russia.
Flynn did not disclose his conversation with Lokhova, the Wall Street Journal reported. Whatever concerns the US intelligence agencies had over Flynn, he retained his top-level security clearance.
Price Floyd, a spokesman for Flynn, said: “This is a false story. The inference that the contact between Gen Flynn and a Russian [dual] national described in this story should be seen in any light other than incidental contact is simply untrue.”
Floyd refused to comment on questions about the alleged email correspondence, or the potential citation for Lokhova’s book.
Lokhova’s partner, David North, also declined to comment in detail. He said Lokhova and Flynn “had a 20-minute public conversation” and have not “met or spoken since”. North disputed Andrew’s account of the dinner in Cambridge and did not answer questions about the emails.
Multiple sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the CIA and FBI were discussing this episode, along with many others, as they assessed Flynn’s suitability to serve as national security adviser.
The Cambridge meeting was part of a wider pattern of “maverick” behaviour which included repeated contacts with Russia, the sources said.
After he resigned from the DIA in 2014, Flynn became a contributor to RT, formerly known as Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language news channel.
In summer 2015, Flynn met Trump for the first time after being invited to do so by his team. That year he received about $45,000 (£36,000) for attending RT’s gala dinner in Moscow, where he sat next to Putin. Flynn also accepted $11,250 from two Russian firms for speaking engagements in Washington. One of them was Kaspersky Lab, a cybersecurity company with ties to the Kremlin.
The US army is investigating the RT transaction and whether it was properly disclosed, according to a source close to US intelligence. The US constitution’s emoluments clause forbids military officers from accepting foreign government payments without the permission of Congress.
The sources pointed to a reported remark by Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, who had told the White House in January that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail by Russian intelligence.
Flynn’s spokesman said Flynn had signed on with a speakers’ bureau after his 2014 resignation, as other former senior government officials have done. He said Flynn had alerted the DIA about the RT speech before he travelled and had briefed the DIA upon his return. The spokesman said Flynn had “nothing to hide”.
As DIA chief, Flynn visited the GRU in Moscow in 2013. He was the first US officer ever allowed inside its headquarters, where he gave a lecture on leadership. “It was a great trip,” he told the Washington Post, adding that it was fully approved. Flynn was keen to make a second GRU visit but permission was denied, it is understood.
In January, the Obama administration said the GRU was behind the operation to hack the US election. Putin has described claims of Russian interference as “fictional, illusory, provocations and lies”.