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Flynn's Replacement Will Have To Fix The National Security Council — If He Can

Officials from the CIA to the Treasury Department are reading the tea leaves surrounding the top choices to replace ousted National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Deputy National Security Advisor K. T. McFarland, now former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and now-acting NSA Keith Kellogg in the Oval Office

WASHINGTON — For those in US national security circles, there are three ways the next national security advisor can go: he can sink, he can clash, or he can bring the body he is meant to lead back into the policy fold after three weeks of tumult under outgoing Ret Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

The three leading contenders to replace Flynn, who resigned late Monday after clashing with Vice President Mike Pence over the content of his phone calls with the Russian ambassador, collectively personify those options, some national security observers believe.

Ret. Lt Gen. Keith Kellogg, the interim adviser, may find it difficult to keep up with the strong personalities already around President Donald Trump, three US officials told BuzzFeed News. They worry that, should he become the permanent replacement, he could keep the National Security Council at its current ineffective status quo. If Ret. Gen. David Petraeus, a second leading candidate, takes the post, his strong personality and independent approach could compete with other leading administration figures and take the National Security Council along for the ride, the same officials feared. On top of that, the administration would have to consider his firepower against the baggage of his 2015 conviction on improperly giving classified material to his mistress.

And then there is Ret. Vice Adm Robert Harward, who is the most expected to return the NSC to its traditional role — advising the president on national security matters to ensure he not only makes the right decision but avoids being pushed into making the wrong one, the officials said. Harward worked briefly in the NSC during George W. Bush’s presidency.

“If they bring in a professional who knows how to run the NSC, maybe it could be stabilizing force,” one of the US officials suggested.

Just three weeks into the new administration, many are already looking to the next National Security Advisor to re-establish the NSC’s traditional seat at the head of the national security table, right next to the president. Regardless of who takes Flynn’s job, the debate around the search captures how much the personality of the national security adviser — and his or her access to the president — can alter national security policy.

Ret. Marine Gen. Jim Jones, President Obama’s first national security adviser and former Marine Corp Commandant and Supreme Allied commander Europe, carried tremendous clout through his military experience, but little once he got to the White House. There, where, as one former administration official put it “no one believed Jim Jones was the last person in the room” that the president consults before making a decision. Jones’ successor, Tom Donilon, was a former lawyer and State Department spokesman, but arguably had a much louder voice on foreign policy.

“It’s about the reflective authority that you have based on the relationship with the president,” one former administration official told BuzzFeed News.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer referred during the daily press briefing on Tuesday to the importance of trust needed between the president and his national security adviser, saying that Trump asked Flynn to resign because he needs to count on the national security adviser for “sage advice” and that trust had been eroded.

Where many felt the NSC was too heavy handed under the Obama administration, taking months to sign off on drone or airstrikes against terror groups, if at all, the dearth of White House officials involved in major decisions now, some argue, has had adverse results in Yemen and in US policy toward China. The NSC staff was largely not involved in the US decision to launch a Jan. 29 raid in Yemen on a suspected al-Qaeda headquarters. The raid led to the death of one US Navy Seal, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, and left six other troops injured and at least nine children killed.

Another example came on Feb. 10, when Trump called his Chinese counterpart and announced that he embraced the One China policy weeks after threatening to reject the decades long policy. A strong national security adviser could have helped save the president from the public reversal and better navigate the relationship with China.

Founded under President Harry Truman, the NSC was intended to serve as an advisory group for the president on national security matters. When the Pentagon says it has intelligence that demand it take military action, for example, the NSC ensures the intelligence community has the chance to chime in, as government departments and agencies see the same intelligence very differently. The Pentagon may see an action as something could improve security while the State Department could conclude the same action could hurt US standing. Before the US conducts a raid, it falls on the NSC to check over the proposed military plan. Could it lead to civilian casualties? What happens if it fails? How do other government agencies who could have pertinent information assess the decision?

The national security adviser is in charge of determining what goes up to the president and how key national security decisions are made. On paper it sounds like a government organization chart — a feature that was missing during Flynn’s tenure at the head of the NSC. But practically speaking, it can be the difference between the right and wrong foreign policy decisions on matters that only allow for the smallest margin of error.

“Process sounds boring but a bad process gets people killed,” Colin Kahl, national security advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden and current associate professor at Georgetown University, told BuzzFeed News.

Flynn seemed to have the president’s ear upon taking office. But that quickly dissipated as officials inside described Flynn as someone who never created an effective process for advising the president.

The national security adviser “has to make the decision about whether this is an issue that the White House needs to weigh in or that it could be delegated to other government departments or agencies,” Kahl said. “And second, to the degree that do you bring a decision to the president, what process do you run as various government agencies have equity in that decision.”

“And Flynn was pretty hands off on both parts,” Kahl said.

Even before questions about what Flynn told the Russians about sanctions during the transition been swirling around, both Flynn and the NSC were largely boxed out by more powerful administration voices — White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

NSC staffers have complained about learning about foreign policy from the president’s Twitter account, not in the Situation Room. These days, officials from departments and agencies as varied as Treasury, the CIA and the State Department are studying potential successor candidates for clues about how the White House will make major decisions — or delegate down.

Under Flynn, the NSC was largely staffed by former military intelligence officers who served with him during his time in the military. Many of those loyal to Flynn would also likely welcome working with Petraeus, who overlapped with many of the same officials. That would likely lead to less turnover.

Petraeus would bring the most stature to the job, which could help shift in the NSC’s standing within this administration. But neither Petraeus nor Harward enjoys a strong relationship with Trump. Kellogg, on the other hand, already knows the ways of the current administration, having supported Trump during the campaign. And he and Mattis are long time friends — Kellogg was Mattis’ deputy when the now defense secretary was commander of US Central Command, which is in charge of US military operations in the Middle East Kellogg’s close relationship could be as powerful as Petraeus’ stature.

According to Politico, other names have since joined the list. They include: Tom Bossert, a national security aide under Bush who now oversees cybersecurity under Trump, Adm. James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts, Secretary Kelly.

It still remains unclear if Harward, the leading candidate, would take the post. He lives in San Diego with his family and works for Lockheed Martin.

Nancy Youssef is a national security correspondent with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@buzzfeed.com.

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