Several Obama holdovers who led initiatives at odds with President Donald Trump’s foreign policy remain on the staff of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, The Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group has learned.
About 40 of the National Security Council’s 250 officials—nearly 1 in 6—are Obama administration holdovers, according to The Daily Caller News Foundation’s analysis. The holdovers include council directors for Korea, China, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Eastern Europe, Israel-Palestine, South America, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Holdovers also advise on weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, nonproliferation, arms control, defense policy, immigration, and homeland preparedness.
It’s been common practice in previous administrations to retain holdovers from an outgoing administration, and nearly all are on loan from other federal agencies. But current and former administration officials say they are concerned that so many Obama-era holdovers are still working at the National Security Council eight months into the Trump administration.
“The problem is the allegiance they have to their former administration and their position and stances on national security,” said retired Col. James Waurishuk, a 30-year veteran senior intelligence official and a former National Security Council official. “It’s crazy when they represent pretty much 180 degrees of what Trump is trying to do.”
Some blame McMaster for the holdovers. “He has protected and coddled them,” alleged one former council staffer who requested anonymity.
Officials on the council who support the president’s agenda are on edge since McMaster dismissed Trump faithfuls Ezra Cohen-Watnick, National Security Council senior director for intelligence; and Derek Harvey, the council’s director for the Middle East. McMaster’s deputy, Maj. Gen. Rick Waddell, also fired Richard Higgins, National Security Council director for strategic planning.
Among the National Security Council holdovers is Allison Hooker, an architect of former President Barack Obama’s Korean policy. She remains council director for Korea as Trump grapples with the worst crisis between the U.S. and North Korea since the 1953 truce that stopped the Korean War.
Hooker joined the council as the director for Korea in 2014 after previously working at the Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research. She visited South Korea in September and December 2014 in a failed effort to restart the “six-party talks” North Korea canceled in April 2009, only three months after Obama took office. Hooker returned to South Korea earlier this year in advance of Trump’s fall visit to Asia.
Trump sternly denounced Obama’s Korean policy in April. “The era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed. … Frankly, that patience is over,” he said in a Rose Garden press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Another holdover is Fernando Cutz, McMaster’s director for South America who previously reported to former deputy National Security Council adviser Ben Rhodes, according to administration sources. Cutz enthusiastically endorsed Obama’s Cuba policy throughout his tenure as a council staffer.
Cutz received his master’s degree in international relations from the Clinton School of Public Service, which operates on the grounds of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
On Feb. 2, 2011, Cutz moderated a QA session at the school by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He was the school’s class president and delivered the commencement speech in 2010.
When Cutz was working to advance the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Clinton School tweeted congratulations for his work on the issue.
— Clinton School (@ClintonSchool) March 17, 2016
Trump has imposed new sanctions on Venezuela, including a freeze on President Nicolas Maduro’s assets, but he has yet to take aim at Cuba, Maduro’s main support. It’s unknown if Cutz would recommend retaliation against Cuba.
Cuban leader Raul Castro is calling the shots in Venezuela where thousands of Cuban intelligence officials roam in the country, The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady argued in an Aug. 6 column.
“Any U.S.-led international strategy to liberate Venezuela must begin with the explicit recognition that Cuba is calling the shots in Caracas,” O’Grady wrote.
Andrea Hall, another top Obama holdover and former “direct report” to Rhodes, now serves as National Security Council’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and threat reduction. Hall’s primary research interest as a Ph.D. candidate in security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003 was nuclear weapons, particularly as they applied to Russia.
A paper she wrote while earning her doctoral degree—“Prospects for U.S: Russian Nonproliferation Cooperation Under Bush and Putin”—provides a glimpse into Hall’s thinking about Russia. She blamed the West for hurting Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia has received few tangible benefits from its cooperation with the United States,” Hall wrote. She claimed Washington was “ignoring Russian concerns.”
“Given that Putin has received significant criticism for his foreign policy concessions and that he has valid concerns about the Russian economy, Washington would be wise to help Russia achieve some of its goals as well in order to cement this partnership,” she wrote.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative co-sponsored her paper, which MIT provided. Wealthy liberal donor Ted Turner founded the initiative years prior, and former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., co-chaired it.
Rear Adm. David Kriete is another Obama holdover. He is now the National Security Council’s director for strategic capabilities policy and responsible for policy on nuclear weapons-related issues. He was a representative to the interagency panel that wrote Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which reflected the former chief executive’s vision of a “nuclear-free world.”
The review received withering criticism on the right, with National Review claiming it “undermines the basis of the deterrent policy that has helped maintain the peace for more than 60 years.”
Jennifer Smith started as National Security Council’s director for Pakistan in March 2015, according to her LinkedIn page. She appears to have little or no experience with Pakistan. From 2009 to 2011, she joined the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, which represents 192 signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Smith later worked at the Cooperative Threat Reduction Oversight program established by Nunn and former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., to verify the destruction of Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons.
Putin withdrew from the convention in 2012. Smith remained at the threat reduction office but switched to working on the Ebola virus. Her National Security Council Korean appointment followed thereafter, even though there is no record of Smith ever being posted to Pakistan or otherwise having expertise about the country.
Jessica Cox, the former national coordinator for 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark, is now the council’s director for arms control. She was also previously client manager of Grassroots Enterprise, a PR company founded by John Hinko, who led the petition against former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment for Moveon.org that generated more than half a million signatures.
Cox’s “specialties” at Grassroots included “fundraising, grassroots organization particularly via the internet, building membership and activists.”
Two National Security Council officials—Stephanie Morrisson and Heather King—work on domestic emergency preparedness and appear to be passionate climate change advocates.
Other council holdovers appear to be nonpolitical, such as Joseph Gagliano, director for counterterrorism. A Gagliano paper on unconventional warfare was found in Osama bin Laden’s home after the military raid on his compound in Pakistan.
Holdover Robert Wilson, a career military man, is also a director for counterterrorism. Wilson commanded a 2,400-member Special Forces group that fought in Afghanistan and oversaw special operations against the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.
Michael Anton, the National Security Council spokesman, called all the holdovers “stalwarts” who faithfully follow the president’s foreign and military policies.
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