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.