Credit to Author: John Gans| Date: Mon, 13 May 2019 21:59:44 +0000
The Tandberg video-teleconference monitor is sleeker than the average desktop computer but not much bigger. Developed by a Norwegian concern now owned by Cisco Systems, the desktop units—which look like knock-off iMacs, with a handset for dialing—support seamless and, when enabled, classified video-teleconferencing. Although businesses are the predominant market for the machines, they have become almost as common as the US flag in government offices around Washington, at embassies, and in war zones.
Even as you read this, there is almost certainly a member of the National Security Council staff on their Tandberg trying to respond to a crisis somewhere in the world. The NSC, which sits on the third floor of the Executive Office Building next to the White House, was created in one line of law in 1947 to help keep papers moving as national security decisions were made. Yet, armed with a Tandberg and other technology advances, the low-profile aides have become the president’s “personal band of warriors,” as President George W. Bush called them, helping manage—and in some case micromanage—the nation’s wars.
That was not the plan when the NSC was created after World War II. But the world changed with the start of the Cold War and the birth of atomic weapons. In response, Washington’s national security agencies, including the Defense Department, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency, grew larger and more global. As presidents tried to keep up and keep control of the government, the NSC staff helped and, especially after crises, were given new technology to meet the challenges of a changing world.
In the aftermath of the disastrous Bay of Pigs, in which CIA-trained Cuban exiles failed to overthrow the Castro regime, President John F. Kennedy’s NSC staff was granted access to a new White House high-tech command post, called the Situation Room, that was capable of receiving all the cable traffic from US installations around the world. Instead of having to rely on the agencies to summarize and share communications, the White House could now pull right from the cables, putting the “raw stuff” unfiltered into the hands of the increasingly hands-on commander-in-chief and the staff he counted on to fend off additional disasters.
It was not the last time that crisis led to a technological advance for the staff. Following the March 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, which wrought confusion in the Situation Room, the NSC got another technological upgrade. Years before either was broadly adopted by consumers and corporations, the White House gained access to advanced video- teleconferencing and an IBM prototype email system called the Professional Office System, or PROFs.
The new tech helped the Reagan staff to better communicate with each other and colleagues around government. It also allowed Oliver North, a Marine lieutenant colonel on loan to the NSC, and other rogue staffers to run an operation to sell arms to Iran and illegally use the funds to support Nicaraguan Contras, who were fighting the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. As the staff worked feverishly to cover up what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair, one of their first steps was to delete emails.
Then as the nation launched a “War on Terror” after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the NSC needed new advances to help with the global campaign and the conflicts in Afghanistan and then Iraq. As those wars went south, some at the White House became convinced that the military and diplomatic corps were not always giving the commander-in-chief and his staff the full story quickly enough. To try and keep up with those in the war zones, more of the staff gained access to the Defense Department’s classified email system.
The Tandbergs in the Executive Office Building soon helped the NSC take even greater control of the war itself. After George W. Bush decided in January 2007 to send a 30,000-troop surge—itself an idea developed by the staff—to arrest a growing insurgency in Iraq, he and his national security advisor Stephen Hadley decided to hire a new staff member to oversee the war. Washington soon became abuzz with recruitment of a new “war czar,” as many took to calling the position, and Tandbergs and phones in Baghdad, Kabul, and elsewhere began to buzz with calls from the White House.
Although some worried about what the war czar position meant for the chain of command, Doug Lute, an Army Lieutenant General, took the job. Though his official title was “deputy national security advisor,” Lute, with gray hair, broad shoulders, and intense eyes, looked like Hollywood’s idea of a war czar. He grew up in Michigan City, Indiana, graduated from and later taught at West Point, and served for two decades in a series of army command and staff jobs.
Technology also changed the culture of the NSC staff itself.
Though Lute wore the Army’s green dress uniform in a contentious confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, he donned a business suit when he finally started at the NSC. Reflecting the importance of the job, Lute did not have to sit at the Executive Office Building and instead got a West Wing office around the corner from the Situation Room, which itself had been technologically upgraded after September 11 with flatscreens, Telestrators, and more. Using data transmitted there, Lute sent nightly updates to the president and walked up to brief him first thing every morning.
Everyone in Washington, Baghdad, and Kabul knew Lute had this direct line to the president. As a result, Lute’s calls and video-teleconferences on a Tandberg were returned more quickly, and his suggestions carried greater authority with commanders, like General David Petraeus in Iraq, and diplomats in Baghdad and Kabul as well as those at the Pentagon and State Department. Lute liberally gave out his White House business cards, and encouraged people to call him personally if there was a problem.
Leveraging the Tandbergs, Lute and his team prioritized requests from the frontlines, troubleshot presidential orders, and reminded the bureaucracy of the wars Washington sometimes forgot. Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who himself worried the Pentagon bureaucracy did not prioritize the warfighters, felt he owed Lute “big-time” for his work implementing the Surge. With his video teleconferences and phone calls, Lute became so essential to the war management that Barack Obama kept his predecessor’s war czar on the staff for several more years.
Eventually, however, the Pentagon grew frustrated with what some called the technologically-empowered staff’s “micromanagement.” It got so bad that at one point when Gates was at an air base in Afghanistan, he caught sight of a labeled direct line to Lute at the White House, which of course meant the command was calling and video teleconferencing the NSC too. The irate defense secretary ordered it removed, and told the commander there, “You get a call from the White House, you tell ’em to go to hell and call me.”
The frustrations were inevitable. With the establishment of the Situation Room in 1961 and its subsequent upgrades, as well as the widespread adoption of email in the 1980s, the classified email system during the 2000s, and desktop video teleconferencing systems in the 2010s, the White House has justified the technology upgrades in service of getting the president the latest and the fastest intelligence. These same advances give each member of the staff, from the safety of the Executive Office Building, the ability to reach around the higher-ups in Washington and deep into war zones half a world away.
Technology also changed the culture of the NSC staff itself. When Susan Rice, who had served on President Bill Clinton’s NSC in the 1990s, was named national security advisor in 2013, she was heartbroken to discover the NSC had lost its “intimacy and collegiality,” according to a recent interview. When Rice was on the Clinton staff, it was smaller and flatter institution that afforded in-person debates about decisions. By Rice’s return to the NSC, the sheer number of staffers and the over-reliance on email and Tandberg video-teleconferences made meetings rarer and deliberations far less personal.
Of course, most staffers would prefer power to personal connections. Because with technology, Lute and NSC staffers have taken—and been expected by presidents to exert—ever-greater strategic and operational control, crafting military plans and orders, conducting diplomacy, and coordinating operations. Today, the NSC are players with ideas and influence and intelligence of their own, and often more clout with the president than commanders in the field and cabinet secretaries on the National Security Council.
Along the way, the staff, with the president’s support and the same technology as those in their agency peers, has taken on greater responsibilities from agencies like the departments of state and defense, as each has grown more bureaucratic and sclerotic. Starting with the creation of the Situation Room, the NSC deposed the State Department as the principal provider of analysis, intelligence, and even some diplomacy to the president. In the years after September 11, the NSC staff, equipped with classified emails and video teleconferences, also began to take greater responsibility, especially for planning, from the military and the rest of the Pentagon.
Armed with technology and far from harm’s way, the staff has not hesitated to share their opinions with America’s diplomats, spies, and commanders. But because they can only see so much on a Tandberg screens of what is going on, the NSC’s ideas tend to be clouded by the fog of Washington, which makes their proposals far less grounded in operational realities and far more focused on progress determined the news of the day. It is no surprise, then, that an impatient and technologically enabled staff, like with the Iraq Surge, has increased the tempo and aggressiveness of the American way of war.
Excerpted from White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War by John Gans. Copyright © 2019 by John Gans. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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