WASHINGTON – The Pentagon on Monday downplayed a Trump administration memo directing changes in the structure of the National Security Council, but analysts are still worried the move will lead to politicized decisions on national security.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump issued guidance for how the NSC would be led going forward, elevating his political adviser, Steve Bannon, to a permanent spot on the committee while adding language permitting the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence to attend only "where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed."
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis defended the language, arguing that there would be no practical consequence because he could think of no situation where the NSC would convene on an issue where Gen. Joe Dunford, the current chairman, would lack the required expertise.
"From our standpoint we don't see this as a change. We see this as a continuation of the very critical role the chairman has played in an advisory capacity for both the secretary and chairman over the past 16 years," Davis said.
Those comments were echoed by White House spokesman Sean Spicer Monday, who insisted that "this idea there has been a change or a downgrade is utter nonsense." The chairman and intelligence director are both welcome to attend meetings when they wish, he said.
That may appear to be true, said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former NSC and DoD official under president Barack Obama. But she raises concerns about the future of the council under Trump.
"There was a change in how [Dunford’s] role described that, if implemented fairly, probably won't have practical impact. It's hard to give them the benefit of the doubt that it will be implemented fairly," Schulman said. "Whether this is a matter of bureaucratic semantics signifying nothing or a serious national security issue comes down to practice and intent.
"If you give [National Security Advisor Mike Flynn] and the drafters of the EO the benefit of the doubt, their framing of the participation of CJCS and the DNI in the Principals Committee (PC) raises no eyebrows," she said, referring to the element of the NSC that is being updated by Trump. "As statutory advisers to the president and the National Security Council, their attendance at nearly all Principals Committee meetings should be expected. But this week’s events and the addition of chief strategist Steve Bannon to the NSC and PC erases the benefit of the doubt that the Trump White House plans to run a fair, credible, and serious national security process."
Others agree the rising power of Bannon, a controversial figure with ties to white nationalist movements who emerged as a top adviser to Trump over the summer, creates a problem for the NSC. His placement on the panel and its Principals Committee breaks precedent to avoid political appointees being given an equal voice on the committee as national security experts.
Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat and ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, in a statement on Monday blasted Bannon's inclusion on the NSC. "Congress will have no choice but to question the integrity of the NSC’s recommendations going forward," Smith said.
The White House began defending the move over the weekend, citing Bannon’s time as a Naval officer in the late 1970s and early 1980s. On Monday, Spicer compared Bannon to Obama’s political advisor David Axelrod, who would occasionally attend NSC meetings.
But in an article in The Atlantic, Kelly Magsamen, who served on both the Bush and Obama National Security Councils, warns that putting Bannon on par with top defense officials sends a bad signal to the defense community.
"To place a purely political operative on the NSC—alongside actual Cabinet members with national-security responsibilities or expertise—is an unprecedented move with profound implications for how national-security policies are developed and executed," Magsamen wrote. "To be clear, that concern is not confined to Steve Bannon. This would be the case no matter who it was."
Kori Schake, a fellow with the Hoover Institute who worked at both the NSC and the Defense Department during the Bush years, says the inclusion of Bannon is a signal that Trump "considers national security issues inseparable from politics," something she warns is a dangerous path forward.
"That means that any particular president’s policies are more likely to be overturned by a successor of a different party or different view. And that’s bad for the country, because most of the national security polices the United States has in place merit being sustained for the protection of Americans at home and abroad, and advancing America’s interests. So the more political you make it, the more likely the opposition party will oppose, and the more likely they will be overturned by the subsequent administration, as we are now seeing."
In the short term, both Schake and Magsamen raise concerns that the moves made to the NSC are designed to silence dissenting views from being heard on national security issues.
"The way the executive order reads is as though the White House doesn’t want potential dissenting views on their choices. And the thing is, excluding your military leadership and intel leadership isn’t going to prevent the dissent form happening. It just ensures that it happens in the public sphere rather than the private sphere," Schake warned.
"Given Trump’s recent treatment and open distrust of the US intelligence community, it is hard not to read this as yet another worrying signal of his intent," wrote Magsamen.
On the Hill, both leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed concern about the reorganization.
"I am worried about the National Security Council. Who are the members of it and who are the permanent members? The appointment of Mr. Bannon is something which a radical departure from any National Security Council in history," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on CBS’s "Face the Nation" on Sunday.
"The role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been diminished, I understand, with this reorganization. One person who is indispensable would be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in my view," McCain said.
The SASC’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., called the move frightening and called on Trump to reverse it. Elevating a chief political strategist while demoting the Joint Chiefs chair and director of national intelligence "is outrageous and potentially dangerous," he said.
"The NSC is required to make some of the most serious and sensitive decisions in our government and President Trump is turning it into an entity that is without a non-partisan military voice," Reed said in a statement.
"The president has the right to choose his staff. But he lacks foreign policy and national security experience, so it raises questions when he prioritizes input from political advisers over national security experts. As we saw with his hasty and sloppy refugee order, he is choosing ideology and unsound policy over the expertise of those with decades of military, intelligence, and foreign policy experience and expertise."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.