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Legal Adviser For George W. Bush Speaks On Restructuring of Security Council


We're focusing much of this hour on President Trump's executive order on immigration and refugee resettlement, but President Trump also made another big move on Saturday that we want to highlight for you. President Trump released an executive memo laying out the role and structure of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council.

Now, every president decides what kind of organization will serve him best. But what makes this particular movie stand out is that White House chief strategist and senior counselor Steve Bannon is invited to attend all National Security Council meetings. He will also be a member of the Principals Committee, which puts him on par with the secretaries of State, Defense, Homeland Security and Treasury.

We wanted to find out more about this, so we called John Bellinger. He served as the legal adviser for the National Security Council, the NSC, during President George W. Bush's first term. He's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. We caught him at his home in Virginia. Mr. Bellinger, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JOHN BELLINGER: Of course. Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much again. And for those who have not heard of these groups before, could you just briefly describe what the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council do?

BELLINGER: Of course. The National Security Council is the group that advises the president on national security decisions. And that was first created by statute in 1947 and has existed in various forms since that time. After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush created an additional council called the Homeland Security Council, which is a similar group of advisers - and largely overlapping - that advises the president on homeland security issues, which are really just threats to the homeland as opposed to more international issues, which may involve foreign policy and may not involve threats to the homeland.

So yesterday, the president issued a national security presidential memorandum, which defines the functions and structure of these two councils and the membership on them.

MARTIN: And why does Steve Bannon's position on this council stand out to you?

BELLINGER: Well, the president can, of course - there's no law against it - take advice from anyone he wants on either his National Security Council or his Homeland Security Council. Both have traditionally included the vice president, secretaries of state and defense and attorney general, secretary of the Treasury. But presidents have historically not involved members of the political side of the House at the White House.

So, for example, in the Bush administration, Karl Rove was specifically not included in National Security Council meetings or the meetings of the group just below that, the Principals Committee meeting, which are the same Cabinet secretaries but meeting without the president. And the reason President Bush did that and, I think, presidents generally have not wanted to include domestic political advisers is they want to send the signal that national security decision-making is not based on domestic political concerns.

MARTIN: Now, there's one other thing that you said you feel perhaps many people may have overreported, if I can use that term. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been - his role in - his role - it is a him - has been described differently in this new memorandum. Is that a significant change?

BELLINGER: That's right. I do think, actually, the press has gotten this part wrong, at least so far. We'll have to see what happens. The memorandum issued by the president yesterday creates a Principals Committee below the National Security Council. And the Principals Committee, rather than always including the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, says that they shall attend where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.

Some have suggested that that seems to be excluding them from some meetings and that perhaps the president specifically doesn't want to hear from his director of national intelligence or chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I read that differently. Since the Principals Committee reports to both the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council, it does seem that the Principals Committee could be covering issues like hurricanes that - where those two would not need to be involved.

MARTIN: OK, well, thanks for clarifying that for us, more to come if warranted. Thank you. That's John Bellinger. He served as legal adviser to the National Security Committee during former President George W. Bush's first term. He's now a senior fellow at the International and Security Law at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Bellinger, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.