Given the breadth of news in circulation these days, an article on the Trump administration and its structuring of the National Security Council probably seems a bit dull, and more than a little esoteric. The article below offers commentary on the approach the new administration appears to be taking, at least out of the gate.

I’ve researched and written a good deal about the NSC’s operations since its founding in 1947, in two books and a new one upcoming this year. From what I can see so far the new administration’s approach concerns me a great deal.  To understand why a bit of context and history is needed.

The national security act of 1947 established the National Security Council (NSC). Its members serve as primary policy advisors the President in the areas of foreign policy and national security issues.  As you would imagine, different Presidents have used the council to a great or lesser extent.

Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy used it extensively; others such as Nixon and George W. Bush used it more sparingly. Which begins to highlight one of the concerns – the whole point of the council, as exemplified by Truman’s use of it, was to get the administrations most geopolitically experienced people in a room along with its best military and intelligence advisors and have open and frequently heated discussions of major policy issues.

None of the three earliest presidents I mentioned would have thought about making decisions without the best advice they could get from the intelligence community or the military. They all had strong personalities and made their own decisions – but only after listening to everybody.

Sometimes the intelligence advice brought to the NSC was not the best, sometimes it was flat wrong, but it was always on the table. The presidents who used the NSC least were those that were not quite so open to contrarian views or perhaps sensitive to being able to manage that sort of sometimes testy give and take that could develop if all parties were treated equally. Truman loved it, JFK loved it, Eisenhower not quite so much and Nixon not at all.

If you look behind the scenes, you find that in some instances that was because one or two key advisors had a president’s ear on these sorts of subjects and didn’t want to share it, or to be opposed in their views. That really stands out in the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations; to some extent under Carter as well.

Given certain decisions and agendas on Vietnam, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Iraq – perhaps a truly open discussion among equals at the NSC level could have helped avoid some mistakes, perhaps not. But the President has to make it “equals”, if an advisor (like Henry Kissinger) is clearly set at a level above the rest, the process failed, and will fail.

There are issues beyond who has the president’s ear and how open the decision making process is, although those are probably of the most concern. For example beyond being a forum for discussion and brainstorming, the NSC is designated to serve as the central point for tasking and communicating with the nation’s military and intelligence groups.

The Secretary of Defense sits as a member of the NSC, while the military services provide information on military capabilities, issues and intelligence through the Secretary or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – or designated JCS representatives. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had been established with its own multi-service Joint Staff and a Joint Intelligence Committee.

Currently the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) is charged with advising the NSC on matters relating to intelligence and national security. The DNI is also authorized to make recommendations and coordinate the activities (functions and missions) of the various groups and agencies involved in national intelligence.

The CIA as well as many other agencies operate under direction of the DNI. Given the breadth and size of the national intelligence community, the DCI is a focal point for bringing the correct intelligence (including briefing officers) into the NSC deliberations. In terms of military advice, the Secretary of Defense is the primary source and is a member of the NSC; the SecDef can call upon the Joint Chiefs and their staff or the heads of the individual services for information or briefing officers.

Anyone who tries to give orders without understanding the system – or tries to go around it – is bound to run into problems. The system is there to help refine and focus the orders, to resolve issues before they are given and then to make sure things happen and monitor them in real time. National security is tough enough when everyone is involved; it fails horribly when they are not – we saw that on 9/11.

In order to make all this work effectively, the NSC also sets the priorities for intelligence tasking and the DNI and SecDef are responsible for assigning and communicating those tasks and priorities.  Theoretically it’s a two way street, with open dialog among the NSC members and lots of actual facts being tossed around the table – that provides some type of balance and prevents presidential advisors from strictly running their own agendas with the President.

There will always be competing intelligence assessments and facts; one of the most disastrous practices in more recent years is for Presidential advisors to bring in their own “intelligence”, which has come from special interest groups or “non-governmental organizations” and which is not vetted in the same fashion as that which normally goes though the filtering process in the intelligence community. The Iraq war provides us with a very recent example of how special interest intelligence can carry the day if the playing field is not balanced (in stark terms, if the President trusts an advisor more than the intelligence community professionals as a whole – who themselves will often disagree brutally with each other).

So, read the article I linked and see if you think there is a reason for concern, if not let me know so I can sleep more soundly…


About Larry Hancock

Larry Hancock is a leading historian-researcher in the JFK assassination. Co-author with Connie Kritzberg of November Patriots and author of the 2003 research analysis publication titled also Someone Would Have Talked. In addition, Hancock has published several document collections addressing the 112th Army Intelligence Group, John Martino, and Richard Case Nagell. In 2000, Hancock received the prestigious Mary Ferrell New Frontier Award for the contribution of new evidence in the Kennedy assassination case. In 2001, he was also awarded the Mary Ferrell Legacy Award for his contributions of documents released under the JFK Act.

9 responses »

  1. DAVID BROWN says:

    It would hard to make the case, especially with Presidents Truman (Hiroshima, Nagasaki and rejection of Stalin as an ally to start the cold war), Eisenhower (free reign for Allen Dulles — assassinations and regime changes — and rejection of neutrals and non-aligneds), Nixon (Vietnam and Camboida, etc) , Johnson (Vietnam, rejection of neutrals and non-aligned, Liberty, etc), Carter (Iran and demilitarization), Bush (Iraq) and Bush (iraq and Afghanistan) and Obama (withdrawal) that the structure saved us in the slightest! Knowledge of the history of the CIA implodes arguments to the contrary.

    Trump does listen, and let’s give him a chance and see — he abandoned waterboarding in 10 hours and he is going to fix the temporary freeze on immigration with vetting standards, proper consideration of social media and radicalization histories, and embedded biometric documentation to avoid forgeries — the only reason to do nothing accepts the existing level of threat and terror and allows a christian martyr every five minutes of every day. Trying to do something reasonable and directed just makes common sense, and worrying about a President’s advisors without input on what advice they are giving is hysteria.

    JFK was the best thinker and the best user of the process of input of contrary opinions, but no structure will give us back what we had with him.

    • David, I am afraid we will have to disagree, cheerfully on my part. You can always find instances to cite bad decisions and bad intelligence. I can give you counter instances to cite good intelligence and good decisions…but frankly neither of us know all of those since good decisions don’t generate crises. As a side note, you keep focusing on the CIA, which frankly is now simply one of many agencies in the national intelligence community and has nothing like the reach or influence it used to…I keep recommending Richelson’s newest edition of The US Intelligence Community, that is mandatory to really discuss national intelligence these days.

      I strongly disagree with you on the premise that President Trump knows how to listen in any deeper sense than to respond to who gets his attention. I also see no evidence that he admits mistakes, learns from them or is willing “to take one for the team”; its all way to personal with him. JFK did, Truman did, there are a number of leaders who made the tough decisions and were raked through the coals for them, none of them whined. When I see evidence of that in him I’ll be happy to acknowledge it.

      In terms of not listening to the right advisers, I can only say his current focus on immigration is totally out of sync with the history of terrorists attacks on our nation – for example the vast majority of the attackers on 9/11 were Saudis, it was largely orchestrated by agents working out of Pakistan. Neither country is on his list. Its an amazingly shallow in terms of what the professionals know about the subject. Right now our biggest risk is lone wolves, citizens recruited for acts inside the country. This is a subject I have studied and I see know evidence he is talking to the people who know their business and have track records in that area. He should simply be asking them what they need and doing that – that is a way to make a real difference and what Clinton did to interdict the Millennium plots in 2000.

      Actually I think Trump has reasonable ideas in certain ideas – at a very high level – but he needs professional advice on how to implement them including people who can help vet his plans. The immigration fiasco of the last two days and the utter failure of his advisors to do any vetting of their plan with the folks at the agencies tasked with implementing it is a testament to that. And that was just about immigration, but if he keeps cutting people out of the loop it can only get worse.

      As to what advice his advisors are giving him, certainly I don’t know…all I can judge is how well what his is signing in the way of executive orders is playing in terms of implementation and it doesn’t look too good to me so far. I do hope he gets better, honestly. And as for giving him time, sorry the CIC is full time on 24/7 from the minute they take the oath. There is never enough time for the new President, which is why it so critical they listen to the most experience folks they can find – and so far Mattis is the only guy on board who I think has a clue.

      So, both of us have had our say, hopefully someone else will chime in – thanks for trying to make me feel better though..

      • DAVID BROWN says:

        Thanks Larry, well said.
        The order is temporary, 120 days, and itself will be vetted and improved.
        Let’s hope he listens and gets it right.

  2. Anthony M says:

    I agree with your concern. Whilst much of the global media focus is on the refugee ban at the moment the NSC changes strike me as exceptionally consequential.
    The implication is that Mr Trump can envisage topics for consideration at the NSC that would be of relevance to Mr Bannon but where he does not want the DNI or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs present.
    This is one of several indications that an all assault on Europe is coming from the US in alliance with extreme nationalist groups in Europe and probably Russia. The expansion of Breitbart into Europe and the very disturbing messages around NATO, the EU and Russia add up to a terribly worrying picture.
    More broadly if you look at the emerging picture through the perspective of oil it begins to make a little more sense, but that is a much wider topic.
    I am a middle aged, middle class British citizen who has always viewed the trans-Atlantic alliance as fundamental to western security. Whilst my government appears to be attempting damage limitation it is with sorrow and indeed heartbreak that I must say I have in the last few weeks come to view the United States as a threat to the national security of the UK, to our interests in Europe and indeed to the planet.
    I never imagined a situation like this could develop but as a practical step, and with utter sorrow in my heart, I am now looking to reduce my consumption of American products as the only way I can think of of fighting back. I hope and pray that I will be proven wrong in my estimate of the situation or that the situation will change rapidly.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I was driving home this evening and was interested to hear of Guy Verhostadts speech at Chatham in which he highlighted essentially the same concern as I outlined above, with the same analysis of Mr Bannon’s and Brietbart’s role in working with nationalist extremist groups in Europe, in parallel with threats from Russia and from fundamentalist groups…
    The point is that surely the blowback against the US that Mr Trump’s apparent intentions is going to produce should be a matter of the gravest concern to all of us.

    • I do think that is a real problem because Bannon and Brietbart have a very narrow agenda and if no one is around to counter them in the discussions they may win by default. We have seen that in the past were one or two advisors were able to totally sway a President and worked hard at shielding away other inputs. We all know the history of some of that but the National Security Advisor can be very effective at shielding and making sure things don’t even come up to the NSC dialogs. Condi Rice shielded GWB from Clarke’s warnings about terrorism and would not even put him on the NSC principals agenda – that proved to be tragic.

      Obviously its early but my concern is that everything those to do to diminish access and debate is going to carry the potential for disaster. And I have not seen that the SecDef or the probable SecState have the influence or access to balance what those two are going to pitch.

  4. Deb G. says:

    The most disconcerting thing about Trump is that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and he’s not at all curious or determined to find out what that might be.

    He thinks he knows everything and his thoughts are always the best. He continually quotes his own thoughts or words as evidence for his own contentions.

    The scientists who keep the Doomsday Clock found Trump’s rejection of scientific thought and inquiry so appallingly threatening that they advanced the clock— 30 seconds closer to midnight.

    All of that indicates that Trump’s not-at-all inclined to take advice from experts in any field, not even National Intelligence, Security, or Military. Due to his incredibly fragile ego & tissue-paper-thin skin, anyone who presses a point to him— even one drowning in provable facts begging to be heard— will find themselves on the delivering end of his pretentious line “You’re Fired!”

    Unless one flatters him & tells him what a smart fellow he is. At which point, they’ll have him eating out of their laps. Like the real POTUS Steve Bannon, White Nationalist & pusher of garbage and lies.

    The move to impeach Trump cannot happen too soon, especially since he holds the nuclear codes and lacks any semblance of common sense or decency.

    • Deb, I afraid that is indeed the fundamental issue. Of course its not unique with Trump, within the last Century we have seen it in Presidents from both parties – both Johnson and Nixon had much the same character and were equally “dangerous” from that perspective. Both took each and every response to their decisions personally, as does Trump and that meant that they were constantly at war with the media. It also meant that both men were doomed to fail at consensus building, as it seems is Trump.

      In taking a look at this mornings news another point struck me that has to be noted in this discussion. Its really dangerous never to admit a mistake but also to claim success when its not credible. As an example, any military geek – such as myself – will roll in the aisles when they see the Trump claims in the following article (such as totally fixing the F-35 aircraft problems in one week) – unfortunately it makes him less than credible to a lot of military people right out of the gate:

      Reagan is a fascinating variation on that theme – although he came into the presidency with some of the same very fixed views he did prove to be “teachable” in certain areas, particular on the dangers of nuclear warfare. As counters we have President’s such as Roosevelt, Truman and JFK who all were what I consider to be pragmatists. They were willing to try different things and back off from them if they didn’t work, all took their lumps doing that but none of them whined about it. I think in a few decades both the first Bush and Obama will be viewed in the same manner….although that may stretch some peoples imagination now.

      After having studied and written about all those presidents in terms of national security and their functions as Commander in Chief I have to say the what stands out to me as the biggest danger is the failure (lack of character) to engage with a wide range of different opinions before they made decisions. That is equally dangerous in my view and ultimately what led us into a range of national disasters – the temptation to listen to only those people who tell you what you want to hear is truly dangerous and that is indeed what worries me most about Trump, that and the fact that so far it appears he can never acknowledge a mistake of any sort and that he seems to feel every issue can be summed up in a tweet.

      The strange thing is that actually I agree with some of his high level views (being the combination libtard and right wing hawk that I am) – I’ve been that way with most Presidents – but I’m afraid his character is going to be so self destructive that it will override any good that he may actually intend. I hope not, I’d like to say its still early and he will learn like Reagan did…if not we end up with the Nixon administration all over again and having lived though that I would have preferred not to repeat it.

  5. Carter, drop me a note at so we can set a time.

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