- The Washington Times - Monday, April 25, 2016

A key congressional Republican hopes to use a major defense bill to give the Pentagon more leverage in policy fights with President Obama’s White House aides, following complaints from past defense chiefs that the West Wing has tried to micromanage national security and military policy and ice the Defense Department and other agencies out of major decisions.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry plans to offer an amendment to the defense authorization bill to cap the size of the National Security Council, now headed by close Obama aide Susan E. Rice. The bill also could subject the council’s head to congressional confirmation in the future, The Washington Times has learned.

News of the amendment comes in the wake of sharp criticism from Mr. Obama’s former defense secretaries — Robert M. Gates, Leon E. Panetta and Chuck Hagel — that their access to and influence over the president were often stymied by an inner circle of less-experienced White House officials.

The move would have little effect on the remainder of Mr. Obama’s term but would be a clear sign of congressional unhappiness with the way the president has run his defense policy team and serve as a warning to future chief executives.

Four months ago, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, said dissatisfaction of the White House among those serving in uniform was at its highest level since Vietnam.

His assertion found support from Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

A key congressional aide said Mr. Thornberry’s amendment would require that Ms. Rice’s successors be confirmed by the Senate if the president allows the National Security Council staff to balloon past a cap set by Congress.

The aide said Mr. Thornberry is still weighing what exact cap to propose but that it should be below 400, the estimated size of Mr. Obama’s National Security Council staff.

Another aide said Mr. Thornberry does not intend to introduce the proposal until the $610 billion defense spending bill makes to the House floor in coming weeks because other committees with jurisdiction would have to scrutinize the measure. The move on the National Security Council was first reported in The Washington Post over the weekend.

While there is some legal murkiness of whether the Armed Services Committee can demand structural changes to the council, the aide argued that Congress created it nearly 70 years ago during the Harry S. Truman administration.

“Of course, even the committee chairman cannot do something that is the jurisdiction of other committees, but any House member can offer any amendment, regardless of the issue, once the [national defense spending authorization] is on the floor,” the aide said.

The measure would be just a small part of a massive spending and policy blueprint for the Pentagon made public Monday. The draft bill would add billions of dollars to pay for more ships, jet fighters, helicopters and more, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Thornberry’s blueprint shifts $18 billion from the account that finances ongoing war operations to prohibit further troop cuts and buy weapons the Pentagon didn’t include in its $583 billion request. To make up for the large shortfall in war spending, the next president will have to submit a supplemental budget to Congress early next year.

The blueprint rejects the Pentagon’s proposal to cut one of the Navy’s 10 carrier air wings. It also includes 11 additional F-35 stealth fighter jets, which cost roughly $100 million each, more Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, and troop-carrying V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, according to the AP.

‘Time to look at it again’

On the policymaking front, Mr. Thornberry, Texas Republican, hinted in a speech at the National Press Club in January that he was considering a legislative crackdown on the National Security Council to ensure a more inclusive process for future administrations.

“Congress chartered the National Security Council in 1947, and from time to time over the years, it has adjusted it,” Mr. Thornberry said. “Well, it may be time to look at it again.”

Critics say Mr. Obama has allowed a small number of top council officials and personal White House advisers to override policy recommendations from the Pentagon, including during crises in Syria and Iraq and missions in Libya and Ukraine, even as friction has built up between the White House and top military officials.

During an interview with The Times in November, Mr. McCain said the White House had effectively blinded itself to the recommendations of key military commanders by promoting a system that suppresses dissenting voices.

“Compliant and easily led military leaders get promoted,” Mr. McCain said at the time. “People who have spoken truth to power get retired.”

He pointed to the cases of Marine Gen. James Mattis, who was reportedly dismissed as head of U.S. Central Command in 2013 for pressuring civilian officials in the White House on potential military options against Iran; and Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who was pushed out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency last year amid clashes with the White House over his leadership style.

But the most pointed criticisms have come from Mr. Obama’s own former defense secretaries.

“It was the operational micromanagement that drove me nuts — of White House and NSC staffers calling senior commanders out in the field and asking them questions, second-guessing commanders,” said Mr. Gates, who was the top civilian at the Pentagon during the initial years of the Obama administration.

In an interview aired last month by Fox News, Mr. Gates said he personally told field commanders: “If you get calls from the White House staff, if you get a call from the president, that’s one thing. … But you get a call from some White House or National Security Council staffer, you tell them to call me instead and then tell them, ‘Oh, by the way, go to hell, and that’s directly from the secretary of defense.’”

Mr. Hagel, a Republican who once served with Mr. Obama in the Senate, voiced frustration over his own rocky time as defense secretary from 2013 through 2015.

Mr. Obama “has a staff around him that is very inexperienced,” Mr. Hagel told Fox News. “I don’t think there’s one veteran on his senior staff at the White House. I don’t believe there’s one business person. I don’t believe there is one person who’s ever run anything. Other than Vice President [Joseph R.] Biden, none of them have ever been elected to anything.”

Mr. Panetta, who served as CIA director from 2009 to 2011 and later as defense secretary, wrote in his 2014 memoir of a White House staff that regularly put politics above the advice of intelligence and military agency heads, including on Iraq and Syria.

It’s not clear how others in Congress will receive Mr. Thornberry’s plan. Mr. Smith, on the House Armed Services Committee, has not weighed in on the matter. However, he told The Times during a November interview that while he agrees with many of Mr. Obama’s key foreign policy decisions, the administration “does keep things in the White House and has not been more inclusive in the decision-making process.”

The Post reported that the White House has defended the National Security Council by saying its growth to a 400-member staff did not occur under Mr. Obama’s tenure alone.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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