The White House is firing back at critics, downplaying concerns that President Donald Trump's reorganization of the National Security Council is a marked departure from previous administrations.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer lashed out Monday at media reports portraying the move as a demotion for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the country’s highest-ranking military officer, and for the director of national intelligence, calling the notion “utter nonsense.”
“Nothing has changed,” Spicer told White House reporters during a briefing. “The director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs are by statute part of the NSC.”
Trump issued an executive order Saturday aimed at restructuring the National Security Council, which has served as a key advisory panel for every president on matters of security and foreign policy since it was established in 1947.
The order said both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence would only be required to attend meetings of the NSC’s principals committee, which includes the secretary of state and secretary of defense, when "issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed."
The order also assigned the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, a seat on the NSC principals committee, sparking criticism from lawmakers and former defense and intelligence officials.
But Spicer called any insinuation that the nation’s top military and intelligence officers would now have a lesser role “a fundamental misunderstanding.” He added the president was even planning to amend the order to formally reinstate the CIA as part of the NSC after it was dropped from the council following the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“What we've done is made sure that on issues of homeland security and domestic policy, they are always welcome to attend,” he said. “However, if the issue is on, you know, pandemic flu or other domestic type natures that don't involve the military, it would be a waste of time to drag the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over.”
Other officials from across the government also sought to allay concerns about the NSC restructuring.
“It’s done based on a respect for the principals’ time,” one U.S. official told VOA on condition on anonymity. “They’re not going to be turned away from any meeting.”
“This is not something that they see as an issue,” a defense official said when asked about the executive order’s impact on the Joint Chiefs of Staff access to the president.
The defense official also agreed with the White House that much of the wording in the executive order mirrors that from previous administrations. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff even issued a statement late Monday, aimed at trying to allay any concerns.
The order “makes clear that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will fully participate in the interagency process to provide the best military advice to the president and members of his National Security Council,” it quoted Gen. Joseph Dunford as saying.
Still, a number of lawmakers and other critics remain alarmed, pointing specifically to the elevation of the president’s chief strategist within the NSC.
“This arrangement could hardly be more ominous,” House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith said, adding that the president’s moves “take an unprecedented step to politicize the NSC.”
“By placing a political operative at the table for all meetings, it concentrates power in the hands of Steve Bannon, an ultra-right wing political strategist who wants to take national security policy in a direction that will undermine global security, strengthen our enemies, and shred American values,” Smith added.
The White House has said Bannon will not be present for all NSC meetings. But there are those who say the move could have far-reaching effects.
“It may be subtle but I think it’s significant,” said Robert Tomlinson, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College’s postgraduate school.
“A political operative like Bannon is always going to look at the political environment,” Tomlinson said, emphasizing he was speaking on his own behalf. “To have that right there as you do the deliberations might stifle some of what goes on.”
Adding to the concern is what some see as a growing shift in the balance of power within the NSC itself. Those concerns have heightened following reports that two former employees of the conservative-leaning website Breitbart News, formerly headed by Bannon, would be joining the council.
“These are activists, not real experts, analysts and strategists," said Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst who has consulted in the past with both the White House and members of Congress.
“Just as it's unwise to bring a knife to a gunfight, it's an enormous blunder to bring activists and journalists posing as terrorism experts into the fold at NSC,” he said.
There also is concern that the way the Trump administration has presented the changes to the NSC reflects a lack of understanding about how difficult it can be to translate broad policy goals into concrete action.
“These people probably don’t understand necessarily how the world works,” said Tomlinson. “They’re all about protecting the president rather than seeing the bigger scope that people in the State Department, people in the Department of Defense, people in the Treasury department understand.”
As an example, Tomlinson and others have pointed to the White House’s contention that the nation’s top military official would not necessarily be needed to sit in on a NSC meeting about a “pandemic flu” or other health crisis.
“Wouldn’t you want that person there to talk about how you can use military forces to help in a pandemic?” Tomlinson asked.
The Pentagon sent more than 2,000 troops, including engineers, medical personnel and trainers, to West Africa in 2014 to help combat the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.