Bolton Dismantles White House Global Health Security Team

The National Security Advisor has broken up the team that manages global epidemics for no apparent reason.


WaPo (“Top White House official in charge of pandemic response exits abruptly“):

The top White House official responsible for leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic has left the administration, and the global health security team he oversaw has been disbanded under a reorganization by national security adviser John Bolton.

The abrupt departure of Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer from the National Security Council means no senior administration official is now focused solely on global health security. Ziemer’s departure, along with the breakup of his team, comes at a time when many experts say the country is already underprepared for the increasing risks of a pandemic or bioterrorism attack.

Ziemer’s last day was Tuesday, the same day a new Ebola outbreak was declared in Congo. He is not being replaced.

Pandemic preparedness and global health security are issues that require government-wide responses, experts say, as well as the leadership of a high-ranking official within the White House who is assigned only this role.

“Health security is very fragmented, with many different agencies,” said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It means coordination and direction from the White House is terribly important. ”

The personnel changes, which Morrison and others characterize as a downgrading of global health security, are part of Bolton’s previously announced plans to streamline the NSC. Two members of Ziemer’s team have been merged into a unit in charge of weapons of mass destruction, and another official’s position is now part of a unit responsible for international organizations. White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, who had called for a comprehensive biodefense strategy against pandemics and biological attacks, is out completely. He left the day after Bolton took over last month.

NSC spokesman Robert Palladino said Wednesday the administration “remains committed to global health, global health security and biodefense, and will continue to address these issues with the same resolve under the new structure.”

Another administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, acknowledged it was only one of many administration priorities. “In a world of limited resources, you have to pick and choose,” he said. “We lost a little bit of the leadership, but the expertise remains.”

Ziemer is a well-respected public health leader who was considered highly effective leading the President’s Malaria Initiative under George W. Bush and Barack Obama before joining the NSC last year. While Palladino said he left “on the warmest terms,” an individual familiar with the specifics behind the reorganization said “he was basically pushed out. He struggled to preserve himself and the integrity of his team, and he failed.”

This is monumentally stupid. While global health has only relatively recently been brought under the “national security” umbrella, it’s the obvious place for it. The NSC, created in 1947, is the foremost interagency coordinating body. At its top level, it’s where the President meets with his cabinet officials to deal with matters requiring a whole-of-government response. It’s constituent bodies, notably the Deputies Committee and various interagency working groups, are how the White House coordinates virtually all national policies. The model is so well-regarded that it has spawned spin-offs, notably the National Economic Council and the Homeland Security Council (the latter of which is sometimes rolled up into a super-NSC and sometimes independent).

If Bolton is uncomfortable with Ziemer for some reason, perhaps seeing him as an “Establishment” figure, then fire him and replace him with a competent ally. But it’s madness to take expertise in dealing with pandemics out of the NSC.

FILED UNDER: Health, National Security
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mu says:

    You can’t fearmonger over ebola if you tackle it efficiently abroad. Domestic politics over everything in this administration.




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  2. drj says:

    Bolton just wants to do war. All the other stuff is merely a distraction for him.




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  3. This is particularly stupid given that there are reports that Ebola is reappearing in Central Africa.




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  4. Guarneri says:

    So I take it that you disapprove of the move.

    It might have been helpful to readers to investigate and relay Bolton’s organizational viewpoint, and not just quote the Washington Post while hyperbolically calling the move madness.




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  5. wr says:

    @Guarneri: Gosh, Drew, if you’re so convinced that eliminating the global health security team — along with the cyber security team, another Bolton target — is part of a grand strategy for protecting the nation, maybe you could explain it to us, instead of demanding that another writer provide posts that match your delusions.




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  6. Ben Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis: That would depend on whether the existence of a dedicated team resulted in a significantly improved response. Given the government’s long-standing reliance on theatre, “look, we got a team and everything”, that’s a difficult case to make.




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  7. wr says:

    @Ben Wolf: “That would depend on whether the existence of a dedicated team resulted in a significantly improved response. Given the government’s long-standing reliance on theatre, “look, we got a team and everything”, that’s a difficult case to make.”

    Unless of course you actually look at what happened with the outbreak during Obama’s administration. But why should we let silly things like recent events and facts and truth get in the way of our blind anti-government hatred?




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  8. Ben Wolf says:

    @wr: None of which demonstrates a dedicated team resulted in a significant improvement in response. What previous, similarly scoped ebola outbreaks without dedicated teams are you comparing to?

    Also, you aren’t more logical, factual or brainy than anybody else. That’s a superiority complex, borne of an inferiority complex you libs really need to lose.




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  9. Kathy says:

    The leak is on their side of the lifeboat, right?

    I’m strongly reminded of barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly,” particularly as regards “actions against self-interest.”




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  10. Guarner says:

    @wr:

    Did you even read what I said? I doubt it. I’m sure James knows more about that particular organization than I – or you – ever will. However I’ve been around organizations and constructing them for maximum efficacy for 25 years. It may be that Bolton has reasons not relayed, especially by a source such as the WaPo. And just summarily calling them madness is not the kind of even handed analysis I traditionally have scene from him.




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  11. steve says:

    Drew is trying to cover for Bolton here, and there is a very remote possibility he might be correct. However, he knows that for something really important in an organization, and this is really important, you don’t destroy a structure without having something ready to take its place. Given that Trump et al love to brag and tout their achievements, the absence of any replacement structure is pretty certain here. My guess would be that this was seen mostly as humanitarian work and therefore unnecessary so it was abandoned. (This is really specialized stuff and you need to invest the money into people who will train for this, knowing (and hoping) that their services won’t be used very often.) Private institutions don’t really have the resources to train and plan for this stuff. I am sure that this may be galling for some, but government really needs to be responsible for this. They may contract it out to private sources, but it ultimately must be a government job.

    Steve




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  12. Just 'nutha says:

    “But it’s madness to take expertise in dealing with pandemics out of the NSC.”

    While I see and support your point, I’m not clear on how madness is outside the scope of “business as usual” for the Trump administration. Virtually every action of the administration is destructive in intent, outcome, or both.




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  13. wr says:

    @Ben Wolf: “None of which demonstrates a dedicated team resulted in a significant improvement in response. What previous, similarly scoped ebola outbreaks without dedicated teams are you comparing to?”

    Yes, it was the magic fairy unicorns that stopped the outbreak! No, wait, it was the ebola viruses themselves that decided they’d rather stay in and have a beer than continue to infect people! No, it libertarian ideology that convinced the viruses that they shouldn’t be working together but should instead all move to Galt’s Gulch and sulk!

    “Also, you aren’t more logical, factual or brainy than anybody else. That’s a superiority complex, borne of an inferiority complex you libs really need to lose.”

    And yet, oddly, I am able to watch as a ebola breaks out, a dedicated team risks their lives to stop it, and it stops before it becomes a pandemic. I guess if I were as smart as, say, you I’d say “nope, just coincidence, that dedicated team had nothing to do with it.”

    Tomorrow’s lesson: When wildfires ravaged Northern California and teams of firefighters risked their lives for weeks to put them out, there was actually a connection between the end of the fires and the work of the firefighters. I’ll draw pictures for you if that will help.




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  14. wr says:

    @Guarner: What Bolton is doing is stupid and short-sighted. If you actually have some kind of counter-argument, I’m sure we’d all love to hear it. But what you’re saying is “I love Bolton and I know he’s always right and someone else go figure out how.”

    I’d think in your 25 years of constructing efficacies — or whatever meaningless nonsense you’re claiming above — you would have run across the idea that if you are making a claim for something it’s your responsibility to explain it… not simply to outsource it at random.




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  15. PJ says:

    Well. I guess, considering the racist brain trust currently running the US, they all hope for it to kill a lot of the brown people in Africa and also spread to Europe and Asia. But Ebola can’t swim all the way to North America, so they think they are all safe…




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