Ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn met with Turkish officials last fall and allegedly took part in a discussion about whisking Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen from his secluded Pocono Mountains retreat and returning him to Turkey, where the government blames him for inciting last year's failed but bloody coup.
The Sept. 19 meeting was described by former CIA Director James Woolsey in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, and set off a new round of speculation about Flynn's actions while he was advising Donald Trump's presidential campaign last year. Woolsey said the discussion involved the possibility of spiriting Gulen out of the country outside of legal extradition procedures. He could not recall whether it was Flynn himself who voiced the idea, or someone else at the meeting.
"It was brainstorming about what would have been a pretty clear violation of the law," Woolsey told the newspaper.
The Turkish government has repeatedly called on the United States to extradite Gulen, without success so far. A spokesman for Flynn said that Woolsey's description of the meeting was inaccurate and that there had been no discussion of removing Gulen from the country. Woolsey attended the meeting in his capacity as a member of an advisory board to the Flynn Intel Group, Flynn's consulting firm.
In February, Flynn stepped down as national security adviser after less than a month in that role, following disclosure that he had met with the Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign and had misled Vice President Pence about the contact.
Gulen has become a thorn in the side of relations between the U.S. and Turkey, with the Turks accusing the U.S. of harboring the instigator of last year's coup.
"It appears to be a big problem," Steven A. Cook, an expert on Turkey and the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said in an interview Saturday. "Every interaction that Americans have with the Turks, both official and unofficial, the Turks emphasize the importance of extraditing Fethullah Gulen back to Turkey."
Cook said he has seen no evidence so far to support the claim that Gulen had anything to do with the coup.
Gulen, the head of a Muslim sect that calls itself Hizmet, or "service," has resided on a 26-acre compound outside the tiny town of Saylorsburg in the Poconos, 90 miles north of Philadelphia, where neighbors have described him as friendly and welcoming.
The movement maintains a network of schools and charities in the U.S., Africa, and in Islamic nations.
For much of the last decade, Gulen and his followers, known as "Gulenists" were trusted allies of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. But Cook said the two had a falling-out after Gulen allies circulated allegations of corruption against Erdogan and members of his family.
Since the coup, which claimed the lives of more than 200 people, the Turkish government has taken to calling Gulen a terrorist. In the aftermath of the coup, the Erdogan government has arrested thousands of military members, bureaucrats, journalists, and others as part of a nationwide retaliation.