The terrorist attacks in Berlin and Ankara—and warnings that more attacks may come during the holiday season—have cast a new spotlight on the pace of Donald Trump’s homeland security, intelligence and counter-terrorism appointments, and on whether he is prioritizing politics and ideology over substance when it comes to these critical roles.
Despite his campaign’s focus on more aggressively fighting terrorism, Trump has yet to name a White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to succeed Lisa Monaco, who currently holds the job under President Barack Obama. He has also not yet said who will take key positions at the Department of Homeland Security, including undersecretary for intelligence and analysis and undersecretary for policy.
Nor has he settled on a Director of National Intelligence, an appointment of special urgency given that its current occupant, James Clapper, said last month that he will retire at noon on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. Clapper plays a central role in assessing terrorist threats at home and abroad.
“Yesterday’s events serve as a reminder of how important it is to get the right people in place on counterterrorism on Day One,” Luke Hartig, a former senior director for counterterrorism on Obama’s NSC, said in an interview on Tuesday.
And although Trump still doesn’t take office for a month, leaving time for top appointments, Obama officials worry that some representatives from Trump’s agency-specific “landing teams” lack experience and policy expertise. That could slow the vital work of a smooth handoff from one presidency to another at a dangerous moment.
Some Trump officials have also created an impression that they are more focused on putting a political stamp on sensitive positions than on managerial competence and a smooth transition, these sources said. “It feels like an ideological change is coming much more quickly than a day-to-day operational change,” said one source familiar with transition planning.
Perhaps the most glaring unfilled post is Monaco’s. As Obama’s top counterterror aide, she is often the first to brief Obama about terrorist plots and attacks and coordinates the government’s response to a crisis. Monaco is also the White House’s point woman on cybersecurity—an issue sure to dominate Trump’s tenure in the coming years.
“One big step would be appointing a new White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser as soon as possible. It’s surprising to me that the Trump team has appointed four of the top positions at the NSC but still hasn’t landed on this job,” added Hartig, now a fellow at the New America Foundation and executive director of National Journal’s Network Science Initiative.
Soon after his election last month, Trump named Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as his national security adviser and K.T. McFarland as Flynn’s deputy. Last week he tapped Lt. Gen Keith Kellogg to be NSC chief of staff and author and commentator Monica Crowley (no relation to the author) to be NSC senior director for strategic communications, a job whose primary duties include speechwriting and press management.
Potentially complicating the picture is the fact that Flynn is keenly interested in the U.S. campaign against radical Islam and has deep experience in counterterrorism, including as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan.
That has generated speculation that Monaco’s position could simply be eliminated, possibly with Flynn himself absorbing its duties. One source with ties to the transition denied that, however. A Trump aide did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, the notion is causing alarm. “Is it true that @realDonaldTrump is eliminating the homeland security advisor position within the WH? If so, why??” David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior adviser, tweeted on Tuesday morning.
Trump has not overlooked homeland security entirely. He recently announced a new Department of Homeland Security chief in retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly. And on Dec. 16 he met for 45 minutes at Trump Tower in New York with the department’s current head, Jeh Johnson, for a conversation that included transition issues.
But given the extreme threat level from al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which has staged regular attacks in the U.S. and Europe in recent months, experts call a smooth transition more essential than ever. Many consider the terrorist threat substantially higher than it was when Barack Obama took over from George W. Bush in January 2009, thanks to the rise of the Islamic State and the epidemic of homegrown terrorists radicalized over the internet.
Some believe that key decisions made during the 2000-2001 transition between the Bush and Clinton administrations may have impacted the Bush team’s readiness to deal with al Qaeda. Bush’s team stripped Clinton’s top White House terrorism adviser, Richard E. Clarke, of his cabinet rank, thereby restricting Clarke’s access to the president. Clarke later said that demotion had the effect of muting his urgent warnings about the growing al Qaeda threat, which he charged the Bush team was slow to acknowledge and develop a policy against, leaving the U.S. vulnerable to the 9/11 attacks.
At a meeting with reporters earlier this month, Monaco noted that she had been unable to meet with her as-yet-unnamed successor. “I am eager to sit down with that person,” she said. Monaco added that the NSC staff has produced “reams of information” for the incoming Trump team.
At the Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, Trump still has several key posts to fill, assuming he does not intend to keep on Obama appointees in terrorism-related jobs. But some of his transition aides have shown a keen interest in redefining the department’s mission and ideology.
For instance, Katharine Gorka, a Trump landing team member with a background in the self-proclaimed anti-jihad movement, has told officials who manage DHS’s Countering Violent Extremism program—which issues grants to support efforts at the community level to stop radicalization—that the program is likely to be renamed Countering Radical Islam or Countering Violent Jihad.
That would signal a new mission for a program that also works to prevent non-Islamic extremism. Trump and many of his advisers have repeatedly said that the Obama administration has not battled radical Islam forcefully enough.
One source who has met with transition officials said that the challenge of structuring and staffing the National Security Council has created tension for Trump transition officials. A provision tucked into a huge defense bill passed by Congress this month capped the size of the NSC to 200 staffers, a move meant to reverse a recent trend in which even some former Obama officials concede the NSC staff’s and influence grew too large.
By some accounts the NSC staff peaked at around 400 under Obama, though the White House says its size is now half that. A late November report by BreakingDefense cited two Trump advisers who said they hoped to pare down the NSC to as few as 40 to 60 staff.
Powered by WPeMatico