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The Toughest Job In Washington

by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.

I was distressed but not surprised to learn of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s departure from the White House. He is a man of considerable ability and has had a long and illustrious career, but the job of National Security Advisor is one of the most challenging in government. Most people in that job do not last long, albeit longer than Flynn did, because of the political volatility it entails and the brutal demands on one’s intelligence and judgement.

I worked with the White House during the Reagan years representing the Pentagon through the protracted debates over military reform leading to the Goldwater-Nichols legislation. It was a matter of keen interest to Reagan’s National Security Advisors. Reagan went through six during his tenure which was not unusual. The one I admired most, perhaps because I worked closely with him, was Bud McFarlane. He did an excellent job, but it wore him down.

It is the job of the National Security Advisor to keep the President informed constantly about developments around the world that can impact our country, especially those involving threats to national security. He (or she) is the point man for the whole national security apparatus which is today loosely aligned under the Department of Homeland Security, but the main conduits of information are the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The President is supposed to begin each day with an intense briefing about what is going on in the world in the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) which is like a tightly-edited news magazine without the pictures. During the Obama Administration they began using a digital version. It supposedly serves as the Chief Executive’s primary source of critical information. (I use the terms “supposedly” because it is unclear how much serious reading President Trump does. The PDB would never fit into a tweet. We will know when President Trump is getting serious about his job when he ceases tweeting.)

In any event, deciding what goes into the PDB is a deadly serious business. It begins with a lot of work by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people all over the world feeding information into the system. Senior people at the various agencies go through this avalanche of information whittling it down to a few key issues that they believe the President should know about. This process demands intelligence, experience and judgement by all concerned.

Every evening this information goes to the White House where the National Security Advisor and his staff of around 200 whittle it down further to get the morning report ready. All Presidents want and need information but they do not have endless time to peruse lengthy reports. They must make speeches, schmooze with members of Congress, meet and greet citizens, play golf, etc. He depends on the National Security Advisor to chop it down and be able to answer questions. That advisor must be able to digest all of the information coming across his desk and decipher it for the President. It is a challenging job. At every turn lie unseen threats and perils. Casual decisions can blow up in your face – which is what happened to Flynn.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. “Mac” McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of “From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications,” published by The History Publishing Company.


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