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Asia Times May 18, 2017

Was Trump's NSC aide sidelined for being too hardline?

Sources say pro-Trump Lovinger had his security clearance taken away due to partisan political reasons and his belief that the Pentagon's ONA was failing to address the threats posed by radical Islam, Iran and China

By Doug Tsuruoka

Was Adam Lovinger, a respected national security analyst, the victim of anti-Trump bureaucrats in Washington who abuse their official powers for partisan political purposes? And was Lovinger also targeted due to his tough line on Islamic militants, Iran and China?

The 12-year veteran of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment (ONA) recently made headlines when his top-secret government security clearance was suspended. The ONA serves as the Pentagon's internal think tank and compiles highly classified reports that assess potential military threats to the US that are decades in the future.

Lovinger's abrupt loss of clearance and apparent exile have had some observers questioning if seasoned national security experts with otherwise strong credentials are being sacrificed in an escalating struggle involving anti- and pro-Trump forces in Washington's fractious national security bureaucracy. The infighting is said to be continuing as Trump clashes with members of the US intelligence community over his campaign's alleged ties to Russia's government and his recent firing of FBI director James Comey.

Sources familiar with the matter say Lovinger was also sidelined due to his criticism that the ONA was failing to address the threats posed by radical Islam, Iran and China.

An expert on South Asia and the Persian Gulf, Lovinger had been on loan to the National Security Council (NSC) since January, where he was a senior director for strategic assessment. He was assigned to the post by then National Security Adviser Gen. Michael T Flynn. Flynn, a Trump loyalist, was forced to resign in February following allegations that he discussed US sanctions with Russia's ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, after the US election.

"It would be easy to be guilty by association with Flynn… Some might regard anybody that was too close to Flynn as being radioactive," said John Pike, a nonpartisan intelligence expert who heads the military think tank globalsecurity.org in Washington, DC.

"Lovinger is an important strategic analyst who was playing a key role in President Trump's effort to upgrade US national security strategy," said a long-time Washington national security journalist, who asked not to be identified. "Pulling his clearance is a clear example of how the security clearance process has been politicized by some Trump opponents in government who want to sideline presidential aides they want ousted. Congress should investigate."

Angelo Codevilla, a former senior official on the Senate Intelligence Committee, says suspending or revoking clearances is a favorite tactic of bureaucrats in Washington who want to neutralize rivals whose policies they oppose.

The Pentagon notified Lovinger via letter on May 1 that his security clearance had been suspended. He was removed from his NSC office on May 2 and transferred to a Pentagon satellite office in Northern Virginia where a source close to the matter says his loss of clearance allows him to perform only low-level clerical duties.

The source says Lovinger first raised the ire of James H Baker, his ONA supervisor, due to his pro-Trump sympathies and his interest in being transferred to the NSC, which was then being reorganized by the incoming Trump administration. Differences also arose between the two on the ONA's mission and future direction.

Lovinger's government security clearance is overseen by the Pentagon, where the ONA, under Baker, is based.

The source says Baker, an Obama appointee, opened two investigations regarding Lovinger and moved to suspend his security clearance after Lovinger wrote several memos criticizing how Baker was running the office.

Major issues raised by the memos were how the ONA had strayed from its original mission of collaborating with US allies to assess the challenges posed by potential adversaries such as China and Iran. Lovinger also criticized how ONA contracts for research on dubious subjects were meted out to well-connected contractors, the source said.

"Many of the subjects of the studies were ridiculous on their face, such as when a contractor was paid to watch fifty Chinese movies to identify what made a good leader," Lovinger wrote in one of the memos obtained by Asia Times.

Baker was appointed to head the ONA by Obama's Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in May 2015.

Sources familiar with the matter say the charges against Lovinger in Baker's clearance probes were trumped up. They included allegations that Lovinger had committed various security breaches, including improperly sharing sensitive information.

Sworn affidavit

Lovinger strongly denied the allegations against him in a sworn March 8 affidavit obtained by Asia Times. His statement details the fact that one of his alleged improprieties included seeking a security clearance for Asian expert Michael Pillsbury for an ONA project involving India.

Pillsbury has written top-level security studies for the ONA for years. He is a respected China scholar who advocates a hard line against Beijing. Pillsbury is also the author of the 2015 book "The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower."

A source familiar with the matter says Lovinger shared Pillsbury's view of China. This supposedly didn't sit well with Baker, who favors a less confrontational US stance toward China and Iran.

Pillsbury didn't respond to a request for comment on the clearance issue.

Lovinger noted in his affidavit that another allegation against him was that he "violated guidance of the (Department of Defense) with respect to interaction with the Presidential Transition Team." "I did not violate the guidance," Lovinger stated.

Lovinger's differences with Baker cut to the core issue of whether the ONA was fulfilling its mission to protect the US against future military threats.

According to a copy of a March 3 memo by Lovinger obtained by Asia Times, he stated that "[The ONA] failed to address what in fact became our major national security challenge: the strategic competition with Islamic terrorists and their supporters, irregular warfare, and the rise of a strong and aggressive China."

Lovinger also noted in the same memo: "In fact since 2010, ONA refused repeatedly to conduct any net assessments to inform the long-term strategic competition with Islamist terrorist networks, the Islamic Republic of Iran, North Korea, Russia or even China."

Flynn connection

On Lovinger's relationship to Flynn, a source familiar with the matter says Flynn, a retired three-star US Army general, originally requested that Lovinger serve on the NSC "by name." This was based on Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, having known Lovinger both professionally and by reputation in Washington.

Some reports allude to Lovinger's past association with the Flynn Intel Group, Flynn's private consulting firm. But the source familiar with the matter says that he never worked directly for Flynn in government prior to his appointment and never took money from anyone or any organization associated with the Flynn Intel Group.

Sources familiar with the matter say Lovinger shared a belief with Flynn that the US needed a serious strategy to compete with the ideology of radical Islam and Iran. Flynn also wanted Lovinger's help in tapping the net assessment methods pioneered by the ONA to bolster the NSC going forward.

The sources say such net assessment techniques were last used by the NSC in the 1970s when Henry Kissinger served as President Nixon's national security adviser.

The Pentagon didn't respond to a request for comment on the reasons for Lovinger's loss of security clearance, his reassignment from the NSC and allegations in a May 4 Free Beacon story by reporter Bill Gertz that Lovinger was the victim of partisan politics at the Department of Defense. The White House didn't respond to questions regarding why Lovinger was transferred from the NSC.

Solid resume

Whatever his strategic views or ties to Flynn, several analysts note Lovinger's solid national security credentials.

He is an expert for the ONA on strategic competition in the Indian Ocean region, the Persian Gulf, and sub-Saharan Africa. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy and McDonough School of Business.

He holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania, a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University, and a Juris Doctor from the Georgetown University Law Center.

A former NSC employee, who requested anonymity, says Lovinger is a protégé of Andrew Marshall, a legendary US strategist who led the ONA from 1973 until his retirement in 2015, when he was replaced by Baker.

"A decade under Andrew Marshall speaks for itself as the most sterling recommendation imaginable," Codevilla said of Lovinger's intelligence qualifications.

Equating Islam with cancer?

Global Security's Pike doesn't know Lovinger. But he believes that national security experts like Lovinger currently find themselves dodging a crossfire in Washington created by the previous Obama and current Trump administrations' conflicting views of radical Islam. Lovinger is reportedly the second national security staff member to have lost security clearance because of partisan maneuvering by anti-Trump bureaucrats in Washington.

Pike notes that Obama's White House downplayed the religious nature of the threat posed by Islamic militants, while Trump and his advisors focused on it during the election.

"What Flynn did with Russia shows a certain lack of judgement. But in other respects, I think he's been unfairly maligned," said Pike, a military intelligence expert who is otherwise critical of the Trump administration.

Pike notes that Flynn, who was forced out of the DIA under Obama, was widely criticized for equating Islam with cancer. "I believe the point that Flynn was making about 'cancer' and Islam was not that Islam generally was cancerous, but rather that violent jihad was a cancer within Islam," Pike said. "Flynn was out of line for the Obama people – he was not politically correct."

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