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Inside the National Security Council

Thursday - 4/5/2012, 1:08pm  ET

President Barack Obama with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon. (AP)
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Council reorganized to reflect current affairs

WTOP's J.J. Green talks to former National Security Adviser and retired Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones


Obama insisted on inclusion

WTOP's J.J. Green talks to former National Security Adviser and retired Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones


J.J. Green,

WASHINGTON - In the past three and a half years, the Obama administration has overseen the killing of Osama bin Laden and radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and the systematic dismantling of al-Qaida. In the same timeframe, longtime dictators were toppled thanks to the Arab Spring.

All were feats that many doubted would ever happen.

Is the National Security Council (NSC) that good or just lucky?

WTOP takes took a close look at the key events that may have set the stage for the stream of success.

In the early days of the Obama administration, media reports painted a picture of turbulence on the national security staff. Unsubstantiated reports of infighting, backstabbing and dysfunction often dominated the headlines. During that time, a figure familiar with high-stakes tension emerged as a calming and guiding force.

Retired Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones, President Barack Obama's national security adviser from early 2009 until late 2010, told WTOP his story recently. He confirmed, revealed and explained details about the operation of the modern day NSC.

He exited the post sooner than many had expected, but he explained it was by design.

"I agreed with my family that I would commit two years to this effort and the president understood that," he said. "We had that agreement that was made in Chicago just after the election."

Jones, now chief executive officer of the Jones Group International, a security and energy consulting firm, set the stage for many of the victories and looks back on the reorganization of the NSC as a pivotal move by the administration.

"I think the very first thing we really did that was consequential was to combine the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council into one national security staff," he said.

The goal was "to organize the NSC to reflect the world as it is, not the world that was," he continued.

That meant economic advisers would be invited to the table along with the military, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement and other governmental officials.

"One of the things that President Obama insisted on, early on -- and I think he charged me with that -- was to make sure that anybody who had equities on an issue was at the table," he said.

Closing the loop on existential transnational threats like bin Laden may have involved some elements of good fortune, but Jones argues that the people seated at the table are the main reasons for the success.

Stimulating them was the key.

"We tried to flatten the organization so that the issues were discussed from the bottom up instead of from the top down," he said.

A sense of ownership and a stake in the resolution of the issues of the day were the intended results.

But for every "mission accomplished" moment there are other threats that remain unresolved.

The U.S. national security team still faces tough domestic terrorism threats, some of which may have been inspired abroad in places like Yemen.

"The combination of the inability of the people in Yemen to keep senior [al-Qaida] guys in prison, and the chaos in Yemen now where security forces are focused on domestic security and not al-Qaida, means to me only one thing," said J. Philip Mudd, former deputy director of the national security branch with the FBI.

"It means the continuation of al-Qaida's ability to embed in Yemen and the prospect that we're going to see another underwear bomber or more attempts against cargo aircraft or something broader."

At the end of the day, Mudd and other top intelligence experts say al-Qaida franchise groups grow smarter and more capable by the day, and it's going to take ideas to defeat them.

That was something Jones says Obama bought into from the outset.

"This president is not someone who calls everyone into the room and says, 'Here's what I've decided,' without analytical rigor," he said.

Very little is said publicly about the operational structure of the NSC under Obama. Even less is said about how it conducts its daily business. Less still is said to local radio like WTOP.

It's a matter of efficiency.

Nick Shapiro, a senior aide to John O. Brennan, assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, politely pointed out in 2009, as WTOP made the first of dozens of requests to date to interview top national security officials, "We don't believe that interviews on local radio (WTOP) is a good use of our senior staff's time."

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