The neutering of the National Security Council by White House adviser Stephen Bannon continues.
Not only has Bannon established a shadow NSC, known as the Strategic Initiatives Group in the White House, but he has also blocked National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster from naming his own staff.
Last week McMaster, a three-star general brought in to replace Gen. Michael Flynn, told Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the NSC’s intelligence director, to look for work elsewhere after CIA officials reportedly “expressed reservations about the 30-year-old intelligence operative and pushed for his ouster,” according to Politico.
Cohen-Watnick worked for Flynn at the Defense Intelligence Agency and “saw eye to eye” with his former boss “about the failings of the CIA human intelligence operations,” a Washington consultant told Politico. “The CIA saw him as a threat, so they tried to unseat him and replace him with an agency loyalist.”
Cohen-Watnick appealed to Bannon and Jared Kushner, and on Sunday Trump saved his job.
“The incident raises questions about just how much autonomy Trump is giving to McMaster, who was tapped last month as national security adviser amid questions about whether he’d have full staffing authority over the NSC,” said Politico.
Bannon’s unprecedented role as a statutory member of the NSC where he speaks as an equal with the Secretaries of Defense and State is “bizarre,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department official, in an email to AlterNet. His position “gives him a power base to push back against the others in the room, as well as an outsized say in the whole interagency process.”
To have acolytes like Cohen-Watnick on the NSC only enhances his power, Benjamin said.
“As a statutory member, [Bannon] can send representatives to interagency working groups and deputies committee meetings,” he said. “Others in those meetings will be loath to cross his reps—especially given the icy chill running through the bureaucracy now.”
Bannon’s outsized role “seems like a recipe for ensuring that Trump gets muddled recommendations instead of the best policy advice, and, of course, it sets up a competing power center to McMaster and the NSC staff, which is no way to run a White House,” said Benjamin, a former NSC staffer under President Clinton. Benjamin also served as Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department in the Obama administration.
At stake, Benjamin said, is not just ideology or office politics but also the ability of the U.S. government to respond to a national security crisis.
Benjamin described McMaster as “a much more capable, intelligent individual” than Flynn, who was fired for dissembling about his pre-inauguration contacts with Russian officials.
“But he too has no background in diplomacy, no experience of note in European affairs or the Far East,” Benjamin said. “The State Department is gutted. It’s never clear who is in charge in the White House—you don’t know who will have the final word when you have someone like Bannon empowered as he is. Obviously, it depends on the crisis, but the possibility of a real crisis is something that keeps me up at night.”