A lot of press has been given to President Trump’s national security memorandum last week that effectively elevates the position of White House political strategist to a major role on the National Security Council.
The almost exclusive media focus on the impact this will have on the NSC, however, may be missing the bigger picture in which the NSC is viewed in the context of the nation’s overall national security apparatus.
If you look at the larger picture, you begin to see that what Trump has done amounts to a stinging rebuke to the 9/11 Commission, which issued a report in 2004 that resulted in a major reorganization of the nation’s intelligence-gathering and security system.
Trump’s most serious rebuke to the Commission has to do with his apparent downgrading of the role of the director of national Intelligence on the National Security Staff by excluding that person from an automatic seat on the NSC’s Principal’s Committee. That move, combined with the downgrading of the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the elevation of the political strategist role on the NSC, would seem to negate a lot of the 9/11 Commission’s intent.
In Chapter 13 of its report, the 9/11 Commission tried to create a new context for national security in the U.S. by centralizing decision-making among numerous national security and intelligence organizations and more clearly articulating the responsibilities of the various players.
The Commission proposed a division of responsibilities among those entities — in effect breaking those responsibilities down to strategic intelligence gathering, operational management, and policy making.
The Commission report proposed giving the policy making role to the National Security Council. (More about that in a moment.) The two other major responsibilities — intelligence gathering and operational management — would be the responsibility of a proposed organization called the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
The job of the NCTC would be to “draw on the intelligence-gathering efforts of the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, and other departments and agencies” and to assign operational tasks to those agencies. The NCTC would report directly to a new director of national intelligence, who would be located in the White House and serve on the National Security Council.
As the 9/11 Commission noted, the NCTC would “not be a policymaking body” (emphasis in the original). “It’s operations and planning should follow the policy direction of the president and the National Security Council.”
The 9/11 Commission didn’t specify the type of policymaking that the NSC would do, but the Commission did specify that the director of national intelligence would be “the principal intelligence advisor to the president.”
Given those recommendations, it would seem the 9/11 Commission envisioned the policymaking responsibilities of the NSC to be informed to a large degree by the intelligence expertise of the director of national intelligence. It would also be informed by the military expertise of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In other words, the 9/11 Commission’s intent was that the NSC’s policy-making process would not be principally guided by political considerations. But that seems to be Donald Trump’s intent in placing his political strategist, Steve Bannon, on the Principals Committee of the NSC and, in turn, demoting the individuals with the intelligence-gathering and military expertise on that committee.
The 9/11 Commission’s recommendations appear to have largely been adopted by legislation and executive order, starting with the George W. Bush administration. There is a reason those recommendations have been taken so seriously by Congress and by the Bush and Obama administrations in the years since the first, and hopefully last, major terrorist attack on the U.S., and that is that those recommendations were thoughtful, feasible and effective.
In overturning the 9/11 Commission’s key recommendations now and effectively politicizing the NSC, the Trump administration is making the country considerably less safe.