NSC Pandemic Office Wasn’t Shuttered, Just Consolidated
Dueling Washington Post op-eds are sowing confusion.
Tim Morrison, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the National Security Council, has an op-ed in WaPo titled, “No, the White House didn’t ‘dissolve’ its pandemic response office. I was there.”
Having called the move “monumentally stupid” in my May 2018 post “Bolton Dismantles White House Global Health Security Team” and then shared Beth Cameron’s WaPo op-ed “I ran the White House pandemic office. Trump closed it.” over the weekend, I felt duty-bound to call your attention to this one.
It has been alleged by multiple officials of the Obama administration, including in The Post, that the president and his then-national security adviser, John Bolton, “dissolved the office” at the White House in charge of pandemic preparedness. Because I led the very directorate assigned that mission, the counterproliferation and biodefense office, for a year and then handed it off to another official who still holds the post, I know the charge is specious.
So, the 2018 report wasn’t fact-checked? And Cameron was allowed to flog a lie in service of a political agenda during the Covid-19 crisis? Not so much.
When I joined the National Security Council staff in 2018, I inherited a strong and skilled staff in the counterproliferation and biodefense directorate. This team of national experts together drafted the National Biodefense Strategy of 2018 and an accompanying national security presidential memorandum to implement it; an executive order to modernize influenza vaccines; and coordinated the United States’ response to the Ebola epidemic in Congo, which was ultimately defeated in 2020.
The links check out. The documents were in fact produced and coordinated through the NSC. I can’t determine in what month the biodefense strategy was published but the memo and executive order were well after the alleged May 2018 shuttering. So what gives?
It is true that the Trump administration has seen fit to shrink the NSC staff. But the bloat that occurred under the previous administration clearly needed a correction. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, congressional oversight committees and members of the Obama administration itself all agreed the NSC was too large and too operationally focused (a departure from its traditional role coordinating executive branch activity). As The Post reported in 2015, from the Clinton administration to the Obama administration’s second term, the NSC’s staff “had quadrupled in size, to nearly 400 people.” That is why Trump began streamlining the NSC staff in 2017.
I alluded to this consensus in this weekend’s posting. While the 400 number has turned out to be bogus—inflated by the inclusion of low-level support staff—almost everybody agreed that the NSC had gotten too operational, stepping on the agencies it was created to coordinate.
So, we get to the heart of the matter:
One such move at the NSC was to create the counterproliferation and biodefense directorate, which was the result of consolidating three directorates into one, given the obvious overlap between arms control and nonproliferation, weapons of mass destruction terrorism, and global health and biodefense. It is this reorganization that critics have misconstrued or intentionally misrepresented. If anything, the combined directorate was stronger because related expertise could be commingled.
The reduction of force in the NSC has continued since I departed the White House. But it has left the biodefense staff unaffected — perhaps a recognition of the importance of that mission to the president, who, after all, in 2018 issued a presidential memorandum to finally create real accountability in the federal government’s expansive biodefense system.
The NSC is really the only place in government where there is a staff that ensures the commander in chief gets all the options he needs to make a decision, and then makes sure that decision is actually implemented. I worry that further reductions at the NSC could impair its capabilities, but the current staffing level is fully up to the job.
Absent direct knowledge of the situation, I’m going to assume that both Cameron and Morrison are telling the truth as they understand it. That is, from her perspective, the NSC lost a policy coordinating committee that was laser-focused on pandemic response and the slow response to Covid-19 demonstrates how bad an idea that was. From his perspective, it was an efficiency move, merely rolling three agencies designed to coordinate related issues into one.
From an organization theory perspective, I could argue it either way.
Morrison uses too little of his precious allotment of words explaining the rationale for the reorganization and too much on decrying politicization, so it’s difficult to evaluate the logic. But I can certainly see the value of consolidating biodefense and pandemic response into a single organization; they seem quite obviously overlapping. I’m more dubious of the inclusion of arms control, which seems like an entirely different group of skillsets.
The value of consolidation for efficiency is obvious. But the downside is that, if bioterrorism and arms control are viewed as sexier priorities—they are Defense issues, after all, and we know Trump likes generals—it’s quite possible that the pandemic mission will get underresourced.
While the poor response to Covid-19 would seem to be proof positive that the current organization is decidedly not up to the job, the obvious counterargument is that no amount of coordination will be effective if the President himself doesn’t believe in the process. If the President rejects expert advice and instead listens to his son-in-law or political cronies, it really doesn’t matter how the NSC is organized.
He said, She said. But given this administrations relationship to facts and truth, I’ll lend more credence to Cameron.
Dismantled, or consolidated? Seems like a distinction without a difference.
The proof is in the pudding. We are weeks, even months, behind in our response. We are left reacting, and so we are lost.
This is the Republican fantasy of shrinking government come home to roost.
400 people is too many? Bloated? I would argue that 800 people would have been fine, if one of them managed to do something about this.
But yeah…ultimately this comes back to the fat orange turd in the Oval Office.
There is fresh reporting that the Obama Administration gamed this out with the incoming Trump Administration before the Inauguration. Trump was more concerned with lying about attendance numbers.
Bill Gates, in 2018, warned Trump about the dangers of Pandemic. Trump was busy trying to learn about STD’s…which I suppose is understandable given his predilection for grabbing pussy and fuqing porn stars.
And there is more. There are a bunch or timelines out there listing Trumps missteps and lies and misstatements…just search for them. (I don’t think we can include more than three links.)
For him to now say that nobody could have foreseen this is perhaps the most egregious lie he has told to the American people..
So, my question would be: when Trump was asked about this he accepted the premise that it had been dismantled. He didn’t come back with, ‘Au contraire, why I just spoke to those guys!” So either the office was dismantled, or Trump didn’t know it still existed. Which rather suggests that if it did exist it played no part.
@Daryl and his brother Darryl: This. The reality is that whatever they did to the office, they rendered it useless. It’s all very fine for some Trump appointee to toady himself and defend the administration, yammering on about the papers he wrote (Who the F cares?) but the pro-active response was not there. Politico has a chilling article about how the Trump administration, by law, was forced to sit thru a pandemic simulation, and their cavalier response. Favorite: Sean Spicer – “A massive transfer of information that seemed very theoretical”. That was his justification for why they didn’t do anything with it. Most Republican response every: “How could you expect me to do my job? It’s complicated!”
@Daryl and his brother Darryl:
Except that one person wouldn’t have been able to do anything. When you reach a certain size–in government even more than in business–things slow down. It starts taking more and more time to get through the proper channels, get the proper approvals, make sure all the proper protocols are followed, etc.
A department of 50 could have called everyone together in one room and said “Okay. Let’s get on this. You guys are doing A, you’re doing B, you’re doing C. Get back to me with options by tomorrow noon.”
And… because you’ve got fewer people dealing with things, you’ve got more accountability.
I’d much rather have a small government that can react quickly and decisively. The problem, of course, is getting the right people into those jobs.
@Daryl and his brother Darryl:
Even Susan Rice agreed that the NSC staff was too large and started to trim it. And bipartisan panels of experts, including studies put out by the Atlantic Council (bipartisan) and Center for a New American Security (centrist but which staffed much of the Obama administration) were calling for a major cutting, consolidation, and repurposing of the NSC to get back to basics. Brent Scowcroft’s tenure durine the George HW Bush administration is widely considered the exemplar.
That’s where my thinking is. I think it was subsumed into a larger organization, where it got less priority. But, even if we had kept the Obama Ebola response team fully intact, Trump wouldn’t have listened to them.
I’m not arguing for big government or small government.
You will never hear me complain about taxes…but in return I expect smart government, and am disappointed in the best of times.
The Trump government is a tragedy occurring on a train wreck which is going off the bridge before our eyes…and it’s no ones fault but his.
Yes. Moreover, the NSC’s job has traditionally one of policy coordination. We have massive numbers of people in the agencies with expertise. The NSC is supposed to coordinate among them by reaching back. Plus, most of the staffers have traditionally been up-and-comers seconded from those agencies.
Um…It only takes one guy to get those 50 into the room. But it takes a leader to back them up. Not a fraud like Trump.
Well…you got your Republican wet dream…Trump shrunk the government…and here we are. So much for that theory. Let’s put it on the shelf with trickle-down economics. JFC…
@Daryl and his brother Darryl:
It’s not just the size. It’s the last part of my comment: “act quickly and decisively“. That falls on the leaders. We’d be in exactly the same situation with 400 staff members and the same leadership.
Winnow out the middle management. Thresh out the clerks (step one will make that a lot easier). Install leaders who know what they’re doing and can take charge. Get it down to 50 people who know what they’re doing and actually do it.
There’s a reason we choose to send in Seal Team 6 rather than the 101st Infantry.
If El Cheeto had all the right tools in place to deal effectively with the outbreak and still didn’t, that makes it worse than not having had all the tools in place.
A department of 50 for a nation of millions? What, one person is responsible per state? What’s the point of being “quick and decisive” when you literally have no one to carry out a task? Oh good, 50 people managed to agree in an extremely short time. Now what?
“Small” is relative. For something like this, 400 sounds about right – 400/50 is 8 staff per state for instance (not that it was broken out that way). You don’t need to get everyone on the same call – you only need to get the stakeholders and then they relay that to the teams on the ground. Insisting on “small” without proper perspective of what’s appropriate is just as bad as bloating. Being criminally understaffed hurts even more then being overstaffed since you can cut waste but can’t get blood from a stone.
@Mu Yixiao: You’re talking about The Mythical Man-Month. Grossly oversimplified, one guy working alone can do so much work in a month, a man-month, an MM. Two guys can do only maybe 1.9 MM because there will be planning and communication overhead and duplicated work. Three guys (oh, in the gender neutral use of “guy” or “man”) can do maybe 2.8. And so on. My estimate for the sort of projects I did was that it went asymptotic at around 12. If I could somehow get a hundred people, they could do about 12 MM of work per month.
Sorry if I belabor the obvious in defining a MM. I once got in trouble with a boss because he asked what it would take to do something and I said about six man weeks. ’Oh, so it’ll be done in a month and a half.’ ‘If I pull so and so off his current hot job.‘ ‘But you said six weeks.’ ‘I said six man-weeks.’ I was way too slow realizing he had no idea what a man-week was. He’d been a peddler. See someone’s comment a few days ago about letting salespeople, like Trump, run anything.
The Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NSWDG), commonly known as DEVGRU (DEVelopment GRoUp) or SEAL Team Six is 1,800 people strong; it is part of Naval Special Warfare Command which is part of JSOC which is part of the DOD. Show me a single fuqing Republican advocating for shrinking the Pentagon?
This is a fantasy. As I said…akin to trickle-down economics, another failed Republican theory.
There was a pandemic office. It was disbanded and/or consolidated. Now we have a pandemic that we are in no way prepared for. The rest is all just BS.
Ok, this is business ideology trying to be applied to the world of medicine and crisis management. Exactly why do you think they don’t need “clerks”? Who do you think is doing all the damn paperwork and stats and document creation? Hint: it’s not the “leaders” since they’re going to be out there dealing with the actual issue. You can’t farm it out to other teams or divisions since the whole point of having a centralized response team is it’s supposed to be the go-to source of info.
I totally agree with having competency in leadership. Start there FIRST. Don’t worry about the underlings being too numerous if the Boss is a complete moron. We don’t need 50 high-powered decision-makers all agreeing super-fast in a room. Trump’s logic was the same as yours – gut the “useless” people and now look where we are. Too much “take charge” and not enough getting done. Focusing on “keeping it small for accountability” almost always leads to crisis because nobody can be accountable without proper resources and staff to do the job.
It’s my understanding that the NSC’s job is coordination. They’re not doing the jobs, they’re making sure that everyone is working together to do their part of the job and getting the information they need.
As James pointed out, each of the agencies involved has a full complement of staff. The NSC is just the hub, not the whole machine.
Well.. considering I AM a clerk, I know exactly the sort of stuff that we do.
I didn’t say eliminate them, I said “thresh them”–i.e., remove the chaff from the grain. Get rid of the ones that aren’t necessary and keep the ones that are efficient and of benefit.
Me (except when I’m posting here). 🙂
The point is: If you have 10 actual decision makers, you don’t need 390 clerks to support them–especially when all the creation of info is coming from other agencies.
For years Republicans have defended trickle-down economics…whenever it failed, which was every single time, there was some reason…an excuse for it’s failure.
We will see the same now in regards to the mindless shrinking of Government…trying to fit it into a bathtub so that it can be drowned.
Trump did it, bragged about it, and now we are seeing the result.
DON’T BELIEVE REPUBLICAN NONSENSE. EVER.
@Mu Yixiao: I don’t know if your analysis applies. ST6 was going after one guy. We are going to need a response that dwarfs the logistics of the invasion of Normandy.
@Daryl and his brother Darryl: Naomi Klein popularized the term “shock doctrine” in her book of the same name. Beautiful Trouble summarizes:
While she has many examples, the big one is Pinochet and Milton Friedman screwing over Chile.
The GOPs will try to leverage the coronavirus crisis. It will be difficult because they likely only have nine months and the nature of the crisis cries out for liberal solutions: universal health care, expanded unemployment insurance, Mankiw’s 1K$ check to everybody is a crude UBI, etc. I see the WH has sent a bill to the senate costing a good shot at a trillion dollars. Details at this point seem thin.They’re starting to open up the money hose. I hope the House can hold their feet to the fire and direct it where it will help the country. I fear the GOPs will use the ‘we must do something’ panic to do the wrong stuff.
Funny how it took almost 2 years for them to say anything. It smells like bullshit to me.
No, it isn’t.
Would you argue similarly for consolidation of local police, fire, and EMT into one organization? There’s probably more overlap there than there is between biodefense and pandemic response.
You mean like… having a single dispatch for all three who can coordinate between them and is trained to pass along the correct information? You know what? They could even share a phone number! Maybe something short and easy to remember.
You wouldn’t consolidate all aspects, but you certainly can consolidate some of the overhead. There are places where EMS and FD already have a significant overlap in crew (places with volunteer FD/EMS primarily), and places where they share equipment and buildings.
No, I mean like what was done with pandemic response.
It’s a waste of time to respond to Morrison, a Trump apologist. But for what it’s worth, here is something from The Atlantic:
I’m a bit puzzled that there is such a quandary regarding who to believe among these two – Tim Morrison and Beth Cameron.
Is there not a giant, day-glow, wildly flashing red herring in the first few words of the very first sentence of this post? I’m referring to:
That would be this Hudson Institute –
And from Wikipedia:
And of course this is the same Tim Morrison who graduated with a JD from George Washington University..
June 3, 2019, Washingtonian –
Watchdog Decries Koch Influence at George Washington University
..before becoming a Policy Director for the Republican staff on the House defense panel and then top U.S. adviser to President Trump on Russia and Europe.
And on the other hand we have the word of Dr. Beth Cameron, who, as she stated actually “ran the White House pandemic office”, as Senior Director for global Health Security and Biodefense on the White House National Security Council (NSC) staff, where she was instrumental in developing and launching the Global Health Security Agenda and addressed homeland and national security threats surrounding biosecurity and biosafety, biodefense, emerging infectious disease threats, biological select agents and toxins, dual‐use research, and bioterrorism.
hmm… who to believe…. it’s so hard…..
@Fortunato: Hudson is certainly a Republican-leaning outfit but they have some top-notch folks. Pat Cronin, Andy Krepenevich, Walter Russell Mead, Nadia Schadlow, and others are on staff. They do have Doug Feith and some other neocons but even they are pretty high caliber.
WaPo isn’t going to allow people to publish op-eds that are straight out lies. Indeed, it’s a verifiable fact the teams were consolidated.
By their fruits shall ye know them. Go back and read that list of awardees again.
Doug Feith? I’m sorry.
Over 4,000 of our troops died in Iraq.
Fuq Doug Feith.
Someone should tell Trump, 2018:
We will need congressional hearings to sort this stuff out- I suspect the staff cutting had nothing to do with efficiencies and everything to do with the war against the “deep state”- a power grab. Now lest we forget the real issue is the WH and then general the government response to the the pandemic. Two things I have noticed in the current crisis: 1. Lack of testing 2. Strategic coordinated response. On the test equation- the fact that the test that was developed was for several assays which by increased its error margin it is just flat out malpractice-for a pandemic speed is of the essence, meaning you test one disease only. The CDC made a catastrophic error. A better staffed WH office could have developed protocols that adopted such standard and a at minimum once the mistakes came afloat, ditch the whole process and adopt the WHO testing mechanisms. As to strategic planning, the recent airport kerfuffle is an indication that none exists. Instead of a fully staff pandemic unit of experts what we have now is a fully staff office of asskissers, politicians, opportunists, very few with any expertise. So let’s you say I’m not buying what Morrison is peddling, one question: what has the current “directorate” actually done so far?
Calling BS on this.
George Will and Fred Hiatt are both congenital liars.
@Daryl and his brother Darryl:
How about Thiessen?
Oh please, is there any video that doesn’t catch Trump in a lie!?
And don’t forget the odious Hugh Hewitt…somebody remind me again how the Washington Post is part of the great liberal media cabal…
During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the soldier selected to lead the campaign, Gen. Tommy Franks, called Pentagon number-three man Doug Feith “the stupidest f*cking guy on the face of the planet.
That Doug Feith.
What does it matter? Trump doesn’t listen to advice from the NSC anyway. It appears on this occasion he’s mainly been moved by Senators Graham and Scott (“Sir it’s no big deal!”) and Tucker Carlson (“Sir you really need to take this seriously ‘cos it’s bad!”).
NSC directorates do two things: staff decision recommendations for the President and coordinate the interagency process once the President makes a decision. If the President doesn’t listen to advice—and it looks like he didn’t for two months—then it doesn’t matter how well staffed the NSC is.
The NSC is part of the President’s personal staff—although a lot of them are indeed seconded from the interagency. So, it’s not the Deep State even if such a thing existed.
@Daryl and his brother Darryl: If you don’t know the difference between @Daryl and his brother Darryl: @Daryl and his brother Darryl: @Daryl and his brother Darryl: @Daryl and his brother Darryl: @Daryl and his brother Darryl: You don’t know the difference between consolidation and elimination? You’re too obsessed with your anti Trump derangement syndrome. You should be yelling at your media and house Democrats for trying an impeachment based on “intent of a statement” tying up Government for months while this was unfolding. I don’t believe much from the MSM. They fact check Trump but even I knew Biden was lying like a cheap rug in his last debate. Blaming this on Trump is unfair. His response to immediately close travel between China was not xenophobic. It was the right call. You’re all Monday morning quarterbacking.
@KM: Remember the XO Rules: A fat section is a happy section.