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.