Sunday, February 16, 2020


While President Trump’s removal of the hate-Trump Vindman twins from their positions at the National Security Council (NSC) is being decried by the mainstream media, it is not only a long-overdue action but also reflects some fundamental misperceptions about the NSC and its operations.

Contrary to what some have reported, there are no “career” NSC positions. Established under the 1947 National Security Act, the National Security adviser and NSC staff all serve “at the pleasure of the president” and are there on temporary assignment, either as details from other federal agencies, the military or academia.

It is critical to understand that the function of the NSC is to compile information from other government agencies and present the president with this information, analyses and options so that the president can make informed policy decisions. It is not their job to make policy or policy decisions, let alone travel the world stabbing the president in the back and leaking information to the media. The president was elected to make foreign policy, and not staff at the NSC or the State Department for that matter. Here President Trump has faced two major problems.

• Bloat in the NSC staff

When Henry Kissinger took over the NSC in January 1969 under President Nixon, the NSC staff numbered 28, an increase over the prior administration. Mr. Kissinger and the NSC staff were all newly appointed. There were no “holdovers” from the Democratic Johnson administration.

When Brent Scowcroft took over the NSC in January 1989 under President George H.W. Bush, all but four of the 50 NSC staff members were dismissed on the first day, with the president’s thanks for their service, and were replaced. The four who were kept on were at the express request of the incoming president.

When Donald Trump took office, he inherited an NSC staff that had grown to over 400 under the grossly inept administration of President Obama and his NSA Susan Rice and her deputy Ben Rhodes. Most of these staffers were not serious professionals from CIA or the military but youngsters who had come from the campaign and “Obama for America” looking for government jobs.

In what can only be seen as a catastrophic error, Mr. Trump’s National Security adviser, H.R. McMaster told all of these holdovers that they need not fear losing their NSC jobs. Accordingly, most stayed, taking every opportunity to harm Mr. Trump, his policies and leak endlessly to the press.

After Mr. McMaster was fired, John Bolton made some effort to reduce the numbers, with limited success, as we have seen. Neither Mr. Bolton nor others in the White House were able to stop the leaks and efforts to harm Mr. Trump. The coup goes on. Even Kelly Ann Conway on TV recently admitted there are still a number of never-Trump people working there who need to go. Draining the swamp continues to be a work in progress.

• Leaking to the media

This is nothing new, and it’s only after arriving at the White House that Mr. Trump came to realize how bad it is. Even though he knew the history of “deep throat” and Watergate of the Nixon era, he likely assumed that career professionals from the CIA and the military with top secret clearances could be relied upon to keep things confidential. Unfortunately, he was wrong.

For Nixon, this was a huge problem, and he was obsessed with solving it. On some important matters and communications, Nixon ordered that the only people to see the materials were himself, Mr. Kissinger and Al Haig (then Mr. Kissinger’s deputy at the NSC). No other staff or agency were to see them at all.

Indeed, in a long conversation he had with Chinese Premier Chou En Lai, Nixon explained this and commented that he couldn’t share this information with either State or the Congress because “they leaked like crazy.” One effort Nixon made to stop the leaks was the ill-fated “plumbers unit” he put in the White House which ultimately planned the Watergate fiasco.

Keeping the secrets was easier in the Nixon era, long before the advent of computers, servers and electronic records. Everything in those days was on paper, and there were strict controls over the Xerox machines. What they couldn’t control were the phone calls to the press, and the “plumbers” as well as the FBI engaged in various wiretaps to find the leakers which would probably be held as illegal now. Indeed, Mr. Kissinger was still being sued over the wiretaps by former staff long after he left the government.

Just how the Trump White House fixes this remains an open question. With the impeachment fiasco behind him, he certainly seems interested in doing it, but in any event it is going to be a long and difficult task, sure to bring constant criticism from the Democrats and mainstream media.

• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

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