— -- The United States is now less safe than it was years ago, in part because a brutal terrorist group has been able to gain power in Iraq after the post-war government there "blew it," a top U.S. intelligence official said Saturday.
The frank words came from Lt. Gen Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, at a national security forum in Aspen, Colorado, where over several days top current and former counterterrorism officials warned of several simultaneous threats to the United States emanating from the Middle East and Africa.
Asked if the United States is generally now safer than it was two or even 10 years ago, Flynn said, "My quick answer is we're not."
Flynn also took a different view over whether "core al Qaeda" is on the run, as many U.S. officials have claimed. Flynn said he believes "core al Qaeda" is the ideology, not any individuals associated with it, and that is "not on the run."
"That ideology ... sadly feels like it's exponentially grown," he said.
Speaking about the unraveling situation in Iraq, where the Islamic State is wreaking havoc and threatening the West, Flynn said the U.S. government knew they were gaining influence months ago but was "taken by surprise" when the group so quickly took over parts of Iraq "like a hot knife in butter."
He put the blame for that, though, at the feet of the Iraqi government.
"The Iraqis blew it ... and boy is it coming back to haunt them now," he said.
Though the United States is less safe than it was years ago, "We understand that we're not, and we're working to organize ourselves better," Flynn said at the forum.
In addition, despite U.S. efforts to broker a peace deal between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the bloody conflict between them might never end, Flynn said.
"I have two grandchildren and they will deal with this," he said. "Is there gonna be peace in the Middle East? Not in my lifetime. Not in my lifetime."
Flynn warned the Israelis "to be careful" about how they go after Hamas, saying, "If Hamas were completely destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse."
Flynn also called on Hamas militants fighting Israel to put their skills to better use. Israeli authorities recently uncovered a series of sophisticated tunnels built by Hamas to launch an attack.
Flynn said a significant amount of "physical energy," money and "engineering intellect" was invested into a "subterranean ability to ... bring violence to not just Israel but to the region."
Hamas should put "those resources and the skills that did that ... into the street-level to build jobs and schools and hospitals and turn it into wealth," said Flynn.