Trump’s dangerous move to politicize the National Security Council
© Getty Images

For nearly two years, as senior adviser to the national security adviser, Ambassador Susan E. Rice, I had a front row seat at every meeting of the National Security Council and Principals Committee. These meetings, chaired by President Obama or Ambassador Rice respectively, were convened regularly to discuss our nation’s most critical and sensitive national security issues — from our military efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to the Iran nuclear deal to North Korean cyber activities.  

The purpose and outcome of each meeting varied, but one component of these meetings that was consistent throughout my tenure was the make-up of participants around the famous conference table in the White House Situation Room.   

ADVERTISEMENT

In a presidential memorandum signed over the weekend, President Trump made several significant changes to the NSC and its processes. He is entitled to do this as the new commander in chief. However, there were several notable and dramatic departures from the past, specifically the inclusion of his chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, and the removal of the CIA director, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), the nation’s highest ranking military official, as regular attendees.  

This may sound like a Beltway issue, but it has real-world consequences to our nation’s security, interests and, of course, the millions of service members and intelligence officers who report to them.

The first troubling development is the regular inclusion of the assistant to the president and chief strategist in NSC and Principals Committee meetings. This means that the president’s chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, will be in the Situation Room for every consequential national security decision for the next four years.  

Obviously, Mr. Bannon is a controversial figure, but the more relevant question is what knowledge does a chief campaign strategist have to contribute to discussions about our national security over the expertise of other national security experts? Will Mr. Bannon politicize the decision-making process? Will he ask what is best for the president’s political or communications standing?

If a political operative with Mr. Bannon’s portfolio had been included in NSC meetings in the previous administration, is it possible that person would have advised against the Iran deal or the opening to Cuba given significant congressional and political opposition on both matters?  

We are facing enormous threats — from terrorism to state-supported cyber activities — and we can’t afford to politicize the national security decision-making process.

The second troubling change was to remove the CIA director from all NSC meetings and not to include the DNI and the CJCS regularly in Principals Committee meetings — meetings that will be chaired by his national security adviser, Michael Flynn. The presidential memorandum does not mention the CIA Director and further reads, “The Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff shall attend where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.”  

What national security meetings won’t touch on issues that pertain to the intelligence community or the U.S. military? In all the sessions I attended in the Situation Room, I don’t ever recall one that didn’t require the expertise and judgment of the CIA director, DNI and CJCS.

For example, while the Iran nuclear deal negotiations were led by the State Department and did not involve a direct role for the U.S. military, the military had long studied the Iran nuclear program and had valuable perspectives to inform our negotiations. The DNI and CIA, with their extraordinary intelligence capabilities, also provided unmatched insight to inform Secretary John KerryJohn Forbes KerryRubio asks Barr to investigate Kerry over Iran meetings Harris demands Barr clarify if Trump has asked him to investigate anyone Kerry fires back after Trump accuses him of violating the Logan Act: 'He's wrong' MORE’s negotiating strategy. If these individuals were not present, the United States would have been at a significant disadvantage.

I can think of numerous occasions when the CIA and DNI’s analyses and intelligence on Russia, Syria, Iran and North Korea enhanced discussions and ultimately the decisions. In today’s national security apparatus, the intelligence community and U.S. military are also involved in and knowledgeable about matters not typically in their traditional portfolios pertaining to development, cybersecurity and international economics, among others. We need these voices in the room.

Additionally, during his campaign and after his election, President Trump has been extremely critical of the military’s campaign against the Islamic State and of course, the CIA and our intelligence agencies. Following his inauguration, he pledged to support these agencies with the full weight of the presidency. I have not yet seen an example of that unwavering support.  

The NSC is part of the executive branch, and its membership is the president’s prerogative. That said, this presidential memorandum raises serious questions about the future integrity of the NSC’s critical decision-making function. I hope that Congress will pursue these questions, and that the Trump White House will answer them.

 

Michael R. Ortiz is a former senior advisor to national security adviser Susan E. Rice and deputy counterterrorism coordinator at the Department of State. You can follow him on Twitter: @MichaelROrtiz 


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill