For most of us, it has been difficult to keep up with the news in the past weeks. President Donald Trump has made good on his promises to move quickly and dramatically, and everyone has an opinion. The new president is unconventional, and many have taken a wait and see approach. But I am gravely concerned that our National Security Council has been severely weakened in recent weeks.
As an Army officer for more than 25 years, I am motivated to speak because of the potential dire consequences for our military and national security. By inserting political operatives in place of career professionals, the council has lost its focus, which should be squarely on the interest of what is best for our country, not one party or political faction.
The National Security Council was created in 1947 to coordinate among the military, State Department and intelligence community. The council’s members make decisions on the highest-stakes, riskiest and most difficult strategic national security issues our government faces. For example, the council met five times to plan the successful capture of Osama bin Laden. Put simply, they make decisions that, if flawed, could result in deaths, serious diplomatic challenges and even nuclear war. Our men and women in uniform rely on the council to have the best information, experience and judgment to make informed, prudent decisions.
Three weeks ago, the president, who has no military or intelligence experience, signed an executive order to remove the chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence from the council’s principals committee, leaving it with no voice from either the military or intelligence community. At the same time, the president granted a permanent role of principal to Stephen Bannon, the former editor of Breitbart, an alt-right “news” outlet that features articles like “Why there ought to be a cap on women studying science and math” and “The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage” that are more like conspiracy theory blogs than vetted journalism. Many even feared Bannon would not pass a standard security background check because of his known erratic behavior, arrest record and empathy for white ethno-state advocates.
Last week, Gen. Michael Flynn resigned his post as national security adviser, a central role on the council. After his departure, Robert Harward reportedly declined the position because of concerns he would not be able to appoint key staff. Monday’s announcement that Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster has been appointed to the post was accompanied by assurances that McMaster has “full authority … to hire whatever staff he sees fit.”
In both instances, the administration put politics first and military and security interests last with predictable consequences: Reports state that in the past weeks, the council, which usually meets nearly daily to discuss and address current threats, has met infrequently, and Flynn’s departure has created more disorder. A rudderless council necessarily weakens our country and could result in needlessly putting our troops in harm’s way.
Trump told the military ball attendees on inauguration weekend, “I have your back.” If that is true, he needs to be sure that they, and the intelligence community, have his ear. That means restoring the principals committee, permitting McMaster to select his staff and eliminating Bannon’s official role on the council.
If Trump does not, our Kansas and Missouri senators and representatives must support the legislation introduced by Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida to guarantee appropriate military and intelligence officials attend all council meetings and eliminate participation by political operatives. Since those currently serving in the military are not allowed to comment on political matters, we civilians must insist on a competent, apolitical National Security Council. The stakes are simply too high to get this wrong.
Michael D. Hockley is an Overland Park environmental attorney who graduated from West Point in 1973 and served as an active duty and reserve Army officer for 28 years.