- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The White House National Security Council staff is being downsized sharply in a bid to improve efficiency within the policy coordinating body by consolidating positions and cutting staff.

A second, unspoken thrust of the overhaul is a hoped-for end to what many critics see as a string of politically damaging, unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information. Leaks of President Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders and other damaging disclosures likely originated with anti-Trump officials in the White House who stayed over from the Obama administration, according to several current and former White House officials.

White House National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien is leading the NSC reform effort. He revealed in a recent interview with The Washington Times that 40 to 45 NSC staff officials were sent back in recent months to the agencies where they originally worked, with more likely to be moved out.

“We remain on track to meeting the right-sizing goal Ambassador O’Brien outlined in October, and in fact may exceed that target by drawing down even more positions,” said NSC spokesman John Ullyot.

Under President Obama, the NSC staff mushroomed to as many as 450 people. Mr. O’Brien plans to cut the staff to fewer than 120 policy officials by early next year.

The downsizing will be carried out by consolidating positions and returning officials to agencies and departments such as the CIA, the State and Defense departments and the military.

Mr. O’Brien noted that the NSC had a policymaking staff of 12 in 1962 when President Kennedy faced down the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. During the 2000s and the George W. Bush administration, the number of NSC staff members increased sharply to support the three-front conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism.

However, it was during the Obama administration that the NSC was transformed into a major policymaking agency seeking to duplicate the functions of the State and Defense departments within the White House.

“The NSC staff became bloated during the prior administration,” Mr. O’Brien said. “The NSC is a coordinating body. I am trying to get us back to a lean and efficient staff that can get the job done, can coordinate with our interagency partners, and make sure the president receives the best advice he needs to make the decisions necessary to keep the American people safe.”

In the Obama administration, NSC officials wielded enormous power. NSC staff members were known to telephone commanders in Afghanistan and other locations in the Middle East with orders — a violation of the military’s strict chain of command, said military officials familiar with the calls.

“I just don’t think that we need the numbers of people that it expanded to under the last administration to do this job right,” Mr. O’Brien said.

Weaponized leaks

The national security adviser did not address the problem of leaks from the White House or NSC staff. Mr. Trump’s supporters said some parts of the NSC staff appeared to have been weaponized against him early in his administration.

Officials held over from the Obama administration are suspected of leaking sensitive details of Mr. Trump’s telephone calls with foreign leaders.

After Mr. Trump’s election in November 2016 and continuing through the spring of 2017, a series of unauthorized disclosures to news outlets appeared to come from within the White House. Several of the leaks involved publication of sensitive transcripts of the president’s conversations with foreign leaders.

Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said this year that he sent the Justice Department eight criminal referrals related to the leaks, including those related to Mr. Trump’s conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon said efforts to weed out the Obama holdovers was a priority early in the administration.

“The NSC had gotten so big there were over 450 billets,” said Mr. Bannon, adding that he and others tried to remove the Obama detailees from the White House.

“We wanted them out,” he said. “And I think we would have avoided a lot of the problems we got today if they had been sent back to their agencies.”

The House impeachment of Mr. Trump had its origins with an Obama-era holdover, widely reported to be a CIA detailee to the NSC staff. The whistleblower filed an official complaint in August saying he had learned secondhand that Mr. Trump’s telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky involved discussions of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and his son Hunter.

The CIA detailee was among the more than 40 officials returned to their agencies.

Another controversial figure on the NSC staff is Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified against the president during a House impeachment hearing that he was “concerned” by what he heard on the president’s call to Ukraine. Another NSC official, Tim Morrison, testified that Col. Vindman was suspected of leaking sensitive information to the press, something Col. Vindman later denied.

The House voted along party lines to impeach Mr. Trump on Dec. 18 on charges of abusing the office of the president and obstruction of Congress. A Senate trial is pending.

Former NSC staff member Rich Higgins said the NSC was set up to implement the president’s policies through “command guidance” flowing from the Oval Office to the NSC and then to the various agencies and departments.

Removing obstructionists

Under previous Trump administration national security advisers, the communication flow was usurped as the priorities of senior officials — along with those of outside departments and agencies — were placed higher than those of Mr. Trump himself, Mr. Higgins said.

“The result was a foreign policy that oscillated and pitted Trump’s voters against what appeared to be a calcified bureaucracy,” Mr. Higgins said.

The “privilege” of serving on the NSC staff “was abused by those who took these positions in a willful attempt to obstruct the president’s and his voters’ agenda,” Mr. Higgins said.

Mr. Higgins praised Mr. O’Brien for eliminating those obstructing Mr. Trump’s foreign policy desires from the NSC staff and re-orienting the council’s mission. He called it an important first step.

“Now the national security adviser needs to address — as he is able to support — the coup attempt against the president with all elements of power, and to take immediate steps and implement safeguards and precautions to make sure this abuse of our intelligence/judicial apparatus never happens again,” Mr. Higgins said.

Mr. O’Brien told The Times that another change he put into place was regular meetings of the NSC principals committee — the heads of key security agencies and departments — and the deputies committee, made up of No. 2 officials.

NSC principals include Mr. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire and CIA Director Gina Haspel are also NSC members.

“We have time carved out of the calendar every week for principal committee meetings … so that we can really make policy across the interagency and ensure that the president is getting the best advice possible,” Mr. O’Brien said. “We want to coordinate that policy, and so far I think we have had a lot of success.”

The security adviser denied critics’ claims that he has sought to add political appointees to the NSC staff.

Officials picked for senior posts were selected from within the NSC staff and from other agencies. Longtime NSC Asia director Matt Pottinger was picked for deputy national security adviser along with Middle East director Victoria Coats, a second deputy director.

The NSC executive secretary, Matthias Mitman, is a career Foreign Service officer who came from the State Department and worked with Mr. O’Brien when he was special presidential adviser for hostage affairs. Another State Department official, Andrew Peek, fills the post of senior NSC director for Russian affairs.

“So we’re putting together a very professional, solid management/leadership team. So far, it is going very well. Morale is high at NSC,” Mr. O’Brien said.

The 40 to 45 officials who returned to their agencies were sent back because their tours of duty ended or their positions were eliminated as part of the reorganization, Mr. O’Brien said. Part of the downsizing also involves consolidating positions. Most detailees to the NSC will spend no longer than a year in the White House.

“When they return to the Department of State, or Defense, or Homeland Security, they will be better Foreign Service officers, better military officers, better Homeland Security officials because they spent time here at the White House,” he said. “We are all serving here for a relatively short period of time. The NSC should not be a career position. That is not how it was designed, and that is not how we are going to operate it.”

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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