‘Our Readiness for a Terrorist Attack Is Dangerously Low’
“I’ve never seen anything quite like” Trump’s approach to national security, says a former counterterrorism adviser to three presidents.
By URI FRIEDMAN
Feb 20 2017
President Donald Trump has made national security a centerpiece of his agenda, justifying policies ranging from a travel ban to close relations with Russia. But the United States is now more vulnerable to attack than it was before Trump took office, according to the man who served as George W. Bush’s crisis manager on 9/11.
“In terms of a major terrorist attack in the United States or on U.S. facilities, I think we’re significantly less ready than we were on January 19,” said Richard Clarke, who served on the National Security Council in the George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations. “I think our readiness is extremely low and dangerously low. Certainly [government] agencies at a professional level will respond [to an attack], but having a coordinated interagency response is unlikely given the current cast of characters [in the administration] and their experience.”
Clarke’s conclusion is based in part on the upheaval on the National Security Council, an organization created in 1947 within the White House to coordinate national-security policymaking across the federal government (the council’s purpose and structure have changed over time, with the staff ballooning from dozens of people under George H.W. Bush to hundreds under Barack Obama). In recent days, that upheaval has included the resignation of National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the dismissal of a senior official on the council for publicly criticizing the president. With a major review of America’s strategy to fight ISIS coming due at the end of the month, the national-security adviser position lay vacant for a week, after the leading candidate to replace Flynn turned down the job. On Monday, Trump named H.R. McMaster, a prominent military strategist, as Flynn’s successor.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” said Clarke, who spent 30 years in government, of the current turbulence at the National Security Council. George H.W. Bush replaced much of the staff from Ronald Reagan’s council, Clarke noted, but the new people were in place within the first few days of Bush’s administration. (Over the weekend, an anonymous Trump official told CNN that it was “dead wrong” to say the National Security Council was in chaos and ill-prepared for a crisis, noting that the council has been involved in the administration’s designation of Venezuela’s vice president as a drug kingpin and in arranging the president’s string of phone calls and meetings with world leaders.)
Clarke’s assessment is also based on the background of the council’s leaders; Flynn’s deputy, K.T. McFarland, was previously a Fox News analyst and last worked in government as a public-affairs official in the Reagan administration, over 30 years ago. Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland-security adviser, has experience responding to natural disasters, Clarke pointed out, and the military veterans (including McMaster) in contention for Flynn’s position when we spoke on Sunday had a wealth of combat experience. But that’s different than ensuring that a hulking government bureaucracy reacts swiftly and effectively to an incident like a terrorist attack. “I don’t know that there’s a single person [on Trump’s National Security Council] who’s ever had a senior position managing a national-security crisis out of Washington,” Clarke said.
Before Vice President Dick Cheney and National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice asked Clarke—then the council’s national coordinator for security and counterterrorism—to act as a crisis manager on September 11, Clarke had been involved in responding to dozens of national-security crises. And he’d participated in many “tabletop exercises”—simulations of emergencies of the kind that the Obama administration staged for several top Trump officials shortly before Inauguration Day.