Not Only Is Steve Bannon Sitting In On National Security Meetings, The Usual Paper Trail Is Disappearing

from the THINK-BEFORE-YOU-PRINT-[reduce,-redact,-obfuscate] dept

The new boss is not the same as the old boss. While Obama was routinely terrible at keeping his promise to run the Most Transparent Administration, positive changes still resulted in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks. The intelligence community is more open than ever — but then we’re comparing a barely-cracked door to one that has been shut, locked, and bricked over for years.

Now that Trump’s in charge, it looks as though transparency and accountability aren’t ideals closely held by his administration. While Trump has portrayed himself as a populist, there’s very little being done currently that suggests the public — including members employed by the government — is welcome to participate in the process. The public has outlived its usefulness. Post-election, it just doesn’t have much to offer someone who appears to believe he was elected “Boss,” rather than “Top Public Servant.”

Executive orders and presidential directives are being issued without legal guidance or consultation with the agencies affected. And the national security framework is being heavily altered by a man best known for running a highly-partisan website. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief advisor and former head of Breitbart, is being given a seat at the “Adults” table for National Security Council meetings.

This isn’t totally unusual. Obama often invited his advisors to these meetings. What Obama didn’t do was guarantee them a spot at the head table, much less do so at the expense of actual national security officials. This is what National Security Council meetings look like now, under the new president.

Bannon’s spot is guaranteed. (This, despite reports that Bannon must be approved by Congress. Nothing in the law says Council members need to be confirmed.) But the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are only invited if Trump feels they should be there. This is an incredibly odd — and possibly dangerous — situation. Two officials considered essential to national security decisions aren’t guaranteed a chance to offer their insight in national security meetings.

Worse, Bannon’s apparently permanent position in the NSC has resulted in him obtaining far more power than presidential advisors normally have. His efforts are further burying national security efforts under thick, black layers of opacity. The council meetings will continue. But it appears any record-keeping will not.

Even before he was given a formal seat on the National Security Council’s “principals committee” this weekend by President Donald Trump, Bannon was calling the shots and doing so with little to no input from the National Security Council staff, according to an intelligence official who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution.

“He is running a cabal, almost like a shadow NSC,” the official said. He described a work environment where there is little appetite for dissenting opinions, shockingly no paper trail of what’s being discussed and agreed upon at meetings, and no guidance or encouragement so far from above about how the National Security Council staff should be organized.

Bannon’s paperless national security “office” appears to be the result of NSC officials doing what they’ve always done: share drafts and briefing notes with affected agencies and their employees. Bannon has put an end to that.

More stringent guidelines for handling and routing were then instituted, and the National Security Council staff was largely cut out of the process.

By the end of the week, they weren’t the only ones left in the dark. Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, was being briefed on the executive order, which called for immediately shutting the borders to nationals from seven largely Muslim countries and all refugees, while Trump was in the midst of signing the measure, the New York Times reported.

Cutting down on sharing is only part of the paper trail elimination. The second part ensures there’s less paper than ever to share. As Kate Brannen of Just Security reports, NSC meetings have been memorialized for years with a “summary of conclusions (SOC)” — basically minutes of the meetings, along with guidance resulting from it. Officials could refer back to these notes if they ran into issues directly addressed in those meetings. They were also given an opportunity to correct the record if they felt something has been misconstrued or misquoted. These SOCs are now just relics of the past.

During the first week of the Trump administration, there were no SOCs, the intelligence official said. In fact, according to him, there is surprisingly very little paper being generated, and whatever paper there is, the NSC staff is not privy to it. He sees this as a deterioration of transparency and accountability.

“It would worry me if written records of these meeting were eliminated, because they contribute to good governance,” Waxman said.

What appears to be happening (although there’s been no confirmation yet) is that Steve Bannon is being given the job of putting together Trump-approved SOCs of NSC meetings. These will be the only official records of the meetings and they’re in the hands of a person who has plenty of motivation to only memorialize what adheres to administration talking points or furthers its goals. With the administration in full control of NSC meetings and any resulting narratives, whatever paper trail survives this bizarre reshuffling of power will be mostly useless.

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Comments on “Not Only Is Steve Bannon Sitting In On National Security Meetings, The Usual Paper Trail Is Disappearing”

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83 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Doubleplus Good record keeping for the modern administration

What appears to be happening (although there’s been no confirmation yet) is that Steve Bannon is being given the job of putting together Trump-approved SOCs of NSC meetings.

Yeah, that goes well beyond ‘sitting in’, at that point he might as well be running the things, deciding what is and is not written down. Someone brings up an issue that contradicts the WH position and/or statements? What issue, no records of it, so clearly it wasn’t raised and doesn’t exist.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Doubleplus Good record keeping for the modern administration

Deniable plausibility of governance. That is scary.

“Not wat I said, the media and the people in power are a cabal against me, bringing fake news and being dishonest! Without them I could make america sooo great, you would scream no!” as Trump would say…

Anonymous Coward says:

Perfect

Obama builds on top of the shit Bush did, and Trump builds on top of the shit that Obama did.

the next president will build on top of the shit that Trump does.

The natural flow of government is towards tyranny, wisdom from an era now considered old and ignorant. My how histories wisdom is constantly scoffed at by the pseudo intellectuals.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Perfect

While I agree that each administration builds on the last, and that Obama continued and expanded many of Bush’s policies that encroached on civil liberties, I think you’re very, very wrong to suggest that this is just business as usual. This isn’t just another case of the new guy doing the same stuff the other guys did; this is really unprecedented.

Unless you can think of another example of a presidential campaign being run by the former head of a publication representing the political fringe, and then, on assuming office, appointing that same campaign manager to a previously-nonexistent leadership post, then elevating him to a national security leadership position, removing actual national security heads from same, plus a number of other cabinet members, and deciding that records of the meetings will no longer be kept.

No, Anon, this is not normal. This is not "the natural flow of government". This has never happened before; at least, not in this country.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Perfect

No, Anon, this is not normal. This is not "the natural flow of government". This has never happened before; at least, not in this country.

And the biggest villains here are the GOP, particularly Mitch McConnell and his naked pursuit of power for power’s sake. When Nixon went off the rails, his own party was willing to hold him accountable. Now we are seeing exactly why George Washington warned about in his farewell address:

The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

GristleMissle says:

The Right Thing

We can’t let terrorists get their hands on this kind of information.

It’s better to run in through a filter first. I certainly couldn’t be trusted with it.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_public_disclosures_of_classified_information
These kinds of leaks will be unacceptable in the new administration. Which I applaud.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: The Right Thing

We can’t let terrorists get their hands on this kind of information.

Apparently we can’t let the Director of National Security get his hands on this kind of information either.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_public_disclosures_of_classified_information
These kinds of leaks will be unacceptable in the new administration. Which I applaud.

If you think all public disclosures of classified information are inherently bad, then I think you may have clicked on the wrong website.

Dave Cortright (profile) says:

Trump is fuzz testing our political system

I know from one perspective this looks like a complete disaster. But from another, isn’t it a good thing that we have someone testing the bounds of what is allowable and what isn’t? And if things were done a certain way simply by convention rather than the rule of law, this is a perfect time for Congress to start passing some laws that codify these practices.

The shock here shouldn’t be that Trump is doing things a different way for his own selfish advantage. The shock is that we don’t have a system in place to prevent it from happening. Our job now is to fix that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Trump is fuzz testing our political system

The way he was showing no willingness for compromise or accepting that he was wrong publically is scary. bullshit-testing a system is fine, but the people he has chosen as ministers and the EOs are a sign that he actually believes in the bullshit he is pulling.

It is too late to secure the pipe when it has already burst. Unless congress miraculously starts to act against a president of their own party, or Trump starts to accept that he isn’t infallable, democracy will be tested in areas nobody wants it to be tested on…

Not.You says:

Re: Trump is fuzz testing our political system

I might could put a positive spin on some of this stuff as a chance to improve government if congress showed any sign at all that they would hold this dude accountable, but the fact is that they haven’t. They show every sign of letting Trump doing whatever the hell he wants. And since Trump already seems to think he was elected “king” if he behaves like one and congress gives it all tacit approval we are fucked.

Anon says:

Re: Re: Trump is fuzz testing our political system

I am not sure if you are a naïve person or if you are a Trumpkin trying to polish the turd. But, given the current political situation, your immense optimism in a fair and balanced political process is kinda cute and admirable. If the last 8 years is of any indication as to how Congress works you are going to be very disappointed. Setting aside the supreme court vacancy, there are currently more than 100 opening (http://www.uscourts.gov/judges-judgeships/judicial-vacancies) at different levels in the federal court system that Trump is going to fill with judges of his choosing, most likely with input from Bannon. Obama tried to fill those vacancies but a lot of them were blocked by Republicans, with probably the same reason they had in mind when they blocked Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, so there goes the checks and balances of the Judiciary. Republicans haven’t controlled all three branches in a while, now that they have that control plus the potential to shape Judiciary for generations to come, they probably are going to be immensely tolerant towards Trumpian shenanigans, so you can forget about your proverbial line in the sand…….

Roger Strong (profile) says:

I share blame in this. I was one of those who mocked Trump for declaring that he was so smart that he didn’t have to listen to security briefings.

Now he’s putting Steve Bannon in charge of security briefings, and for all we know the briefings sound like idle chatter on Billy Bush’s bus.

I should have considered the unintended consequences.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The code not only forces them to read the articles, not only forces them to comment, but also makes them forget the fact that this site has been covering political and other subjects not directly tech-related for years!

Truly amazing. It’s probably also the same code that makes people forget all the articles critical of Google, Obama or Clinton whenever they decide the site’s shilling for them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wow. Miss one little link and the whole thing goes wonky. Spent fifteen minutes going back to see what I missed because I was wondering WTF Harold Waxman had to do with anything! I almost had decided someplace had asked him since he used to be on Governmental Oversight committee. Finally found the original link and discovered it was Matthew! Actually, it still sounds like something Harold would have said. Eh, who knew?

Bonnie Doerr says:

The Donald

I feel like I’m in a Country being run by a dictator! I’m a US born citizen, age 76, and keeping abreast of the s#It is almost impossible This is scary stuff! PLEASE, someone tell the foolish emportor that he isn’t wearing any clothes. Keep blasting the truth, media. I would be really frightened without

CNN and folks like you. Bonniedoerr@charter.net

Anonymous Coward says:

I keep trying to comfort myself with the words from Reek who wisely said:

“It can always be worse”

Unfortunately I am having a tough time squaring that with the white supremacist website “Daily Stormer” where it was written:

“Just like everything else we hoped for, Bannon is going to be exactly where we want him: right next to Trump, all day every day.”

I suspect the lack of a paper trail is going to be the least of our worries soon enough. Bannon is positioning himself to always be the last person Trump hears.

seedeevee (profile) says:

insight to essentialness

“Two officials considered essential to national security decisions aren’t guaranteed a chance to offer their insight in national security meetings. “

I think what has been proven is that no set number of “officials’ lead to wise national security decisions in the USA and that all they really do is perform a CYA function for decisions made by the President or his chosen top adviser.

Can anyone name a top NatSec official of the last 50 years that hasn’t been a hack with a long list of errors?

Anonymous Coward says:

How long till Dumpf fires all federal judges, all members of congress and declares himself king?

I hope the military will tell him to piss off when the pitch forks start appearing.

This could go down several ways, none of them are pretty. The GOP{ would do themselves a favor if they cut this off now before it gets really bad.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re:

They won’t. The Tea Party and its Bannonite associates (I’m looking at you, Limbaugh and Hannity!) encouraged their audience to campaign for “the most conservative” candidates, by which normal people mean “the most anarchic or fascist”. Result: GOP seats filled with the likes of David “I’m not A WASP, I’m THE WASP!” Brat and the Science Committee staffed with denialists of every stripe. These guys are, for the most part, the nicer, more acceptable version, though they used to be on the outer fringes. Trump is the logical endgame of voting such people into office; the mentality that put them in put him in, that’s why he’s not only got both Houses he’s got the three Branches as well. The damage he does may take decades to resolve.

The only way to sort this out is for sensible, fact-driven designated driver-type conservatives to speak out to counter the binary left/right narrative, which only serves to promote and normalise the extremism we’re seeing today. If the liberal/progressives and leftists (there are a few, they’re the ones banging on about class. Don’t get me started!) are the only ones saying anything, people on the other side of the aisle might ignore them. If more of the people conservatives tend to respect speak out, the moderate ones may well join them. This needs to happen.

The GOP goes where the noise (and the votes) is. Moderates need to be making more noise. Now.

AnonCow says:

I think that this series of high visibility executive orders is a purposeful strategy on the part of Bannon and others.

Its goal is to front-load the term with a massive amount of absolutely horrible executive orders. If they go unchecked, they will continue unabated. if they get checked, they will pull back and spin stories to cover for their actions.

That is why they are limiting access. They all want plausible deniability. Everyone at the table is culpable, so nobody can point fingers if it blows up.

Koby says:

Paralysis No More

>>Executive orders and presidential directives are being issued without legal guidance or consultation with the agencies affected.

This is exactly why nothing “gets done” in Washington, because it will probably take 10 years to do studies and get buy-in and legal guidance from everyone and each stakeholder and department. Even assuming that he gets a second term, he will finally be able to act exactly two years after he’s out of office. In the meantime, the bureaucracy will continue to spiral out of control.

Instead, Trump is running things like a corporation, with a chain of command. Everyone in Washington dreams of being some kind of policy-maker, but Trump is going to change this. Instead, certain people that Trump trusts will develop the policy, while everyone else carries out the directives. It’s probably going to make a bunch of the career bureaucrats very unhappy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Nothing sadder than a bitter nard-kicked democrat rolling around in their own vomit to pick out "cherries". Sad.. just sad. Sad when a site, originally (and supposedly) about the "story", now nothing more than a container for the bitterness you pour over your viewers* heads daily.

Just.. go home and beat off to SNL.

*your "viewers" are spectators of sad spectacles.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: now nothing more than a container for the bitterness you pour over your viewers* heads daily.

A Trumper like the AC you’re responding to isn’t a conservative. Trump is the figurehead of the Alt-Right, which by definition rejects mainstream conservatism. His "we will change everything" policy, for better or worse, is the polar opposite of conservative.

AC defines liberal as "someone he’s told to disagree with", including most real conservatives.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: now nothing more than a container for the bitterness you pour over your viewers* heads daily.

What Roger Strong says. I’m conservative and can’t stand Trump on the grounds that his policies and actions are contrary to my belief in traditional community values. He’s crapping all over them and I’m mad as hell about it.

Last night I discovered that he’s got few, if any fans at The American Conservative. They were giving him a right slagging off. “Conservative” has only come to mean “loon” because the alt-right have hijacked the narrative. Real conservatives are sane, designated driver types who love order and believe in good governance.

RIchZ (profile) says:

Somebody hasn't read the Presidential Memorandum

The outrage is somewhat misplaced, as people seem to be mixing and matching different parts of the Pres. Memo.

The DNI and Chairman JCoS _are_ still mandatory members of the full National Security Council, with “shall attend” status. This is the full NSC where Bannon is one of five members who are not mandatory attendees, but have an open invitation.

The Principal’s Committee, an interagency coordination committee (PC) is the one where the DNI and CJCoS are not required to attend _all_ meetings, but are still “shall attend” for anything in their bailiwick. Note that this is the exact same thing GW Bush did in _his_ realignment of the NSC (he did not, however, add anybody like Bannon to the PC).

It helps to read the actual document in question, instead of news and blog article ledes. To read this one, see
https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/28/presidential-memorandum-organization-national-security-council-and

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:

This is an example of the kind of thing I was talking about earlier. To maintain order and good governance, people who actually know what they’re doing ought to head up the various departments of the government. Steve Bannon has no experience of national security or foreign policy management so ought to be excluded or at least on the side making the coffee while the grownups are talking. Actually, neither does Trump. I can only hope that the Joint Chiefs are running a shadow National Security Council to keep the country safe while Trump and Bannon make pillow forts in the Oval Office.

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