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President Trump’s appointment of Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser and placing his chief strategist Steve Bannon on the National Security Council have thrust the labyrinth of America’s national security apparatus into the public eye. Understanding the significance of both Flynn’s appointment and subsequent resignation and Bannon’s NSC position requires unpacking the bulky and often confusing structure of America’s defense and intelligence communities. The National Security Act of 1947 created the position of National Security Adviser and the National Security Council and brought sweeping changes to America’s military and the nation’s intelligence capabilities.

From an organizational perspective, the National Security Act of 1947 created the cabinet level position of Secretary of Defense to oversee the newly-named National Military Establishment. The law renamed the Department of War into the Department of the Army and it split off the Army Air Force into its own department. It then placed the departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Defense. An amendment to the Act in 1949 formally created the Department of Defense and ensured the subordination of the three branches of the military to the Secretary of Defense. The National Security Act also formally created the the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an advisory board on national security measures, consisting of a Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Chief of Staff of the Army, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Chief of Naval Operations, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and, as of 2012, the chief of the National Guard Bureau. President Truman claimed in the 1949 that the Department of Defense would “permit us to make real progress toward building a balanced and effective national defense.” The Act solidified the position of the military under the control of the Executive Branch.

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President Harry Truman 

In an effort to streamline the United States’ intelligence gathering operations, the National Security Act also created the Central Intelligence Agency. During World War II, President Roosevelt created the Office of Strategic Services for the purposes of wartime intelligence gathering. The OSS, however, had to conduct its operations alongside the F.B.I., Army, and Navy. After the war, Truman dissolved the OSS, but sought to create a new unified intelligence agency that would oversee all aspects of the intelligence community within the Executive Branch. The C.I.A. never, however, became the one-stop shop for intelligence gathering. As the Cold War escalated and America entered the space race, the intelligence community expanded with the creation of the National Security Agency in 1952, the Defense Intelligence Agency and National Reconnaissance Office in 1961, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in 1996. Meanwhile, each branch of the military maintained their own separate intelligence services. By the early 2000s, the American intelligence community had grown so much that Congress authorized the creation of the Director of National Intelligence to bring the nation’s numerous intelligence agencies under one roof within the Executive Branch.

Finally, the National Security Act of 1947 created the National Security Council to coordinate American national security policy. The National Security Adviser, as the title implies, serves as the President’s chief adviser on national security issues and chairs the NSC when the president is absent. The National Security Adviser sits on the NSC alongside the Vice President, Secretaries of State, Defense, Energy, Treasury, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Director of National Intelligence, Director of National Drug Control Policy, the Attorney General, and the White House Chief of Staff. The NSC also boasts an extensive staff of deputies and departments dealing with each geographic region of the world along with other broader threats like terrorism and cyber attacks. The post is not subject to Senate approval, granting the president wide latitude on who he wants to appoint to the position. The National Security Adviser involves daily access to the highest levels of American intelligence and provides briefings and advice to the President on a myriad of issues. As former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the White House, Flynn’s prominent post in the White House combined with his failure to disclose his prior contacts with Russian officials placed him in a potentially compromising position.

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In January 2017, President Trump elevated his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to a seat on the Principals Committee of National Security Council alongside the Secretaries of State, Defense, Homeland Security, and the Treasury. This move sparked controversy since, as the Lawfare blog reported, “Presidents in the past have adopted ‘Chief Strategists,’ or political advisors, but have never formally invited one to an NSC subgroup or the NSC itself.” Lawfare concluded that Bannon’s “official role is thus unprecedented.” In contrast to Trump, President George W. Bush, according to his former chief of staff Josh Bolten, and did not allow chief adviser Karl Rove into NSC meetings; “the President also knew that the signal he wanted to send to the rest of his administration, the signal he wanted to send to the public, and the signal he especially wanted to send to the military is that the decisions I’m making that involve life and death for the people in uniform will not be tainted by any political decisions.” Bannon’s post on the NSC did not last long. In early April, after Flynn’s resignation and the installment of H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, Bannon was removed from the NSC’s Principals Committee.

Understanding the Flynn and Bannon stories requires us to revisit the creation of our current national security apparatus during the Cold War. It also reminds us of the wide latitude granted to presidents regarding the military and intelligence communities.

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