The untold stories of the National Security Council

John Gans, director of communications and research at Perry World House, discusses his new book that captures the stories and inner workings of National Security Council staff.

John Gans by bookshelf
John Gans, director of communications and research at Perry World House. (Photo courtesy: John Gans)

John Gans, then a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, had a pretty simple question: What do the staffers of the National Security Council (NSC) actually do?

In search of a dissertation topic, Gans suggested that question on the NSC to his adviser and was told to come back after going through what had already been written. It turned out, Gans says, there wasn’t much written about it at all.

Now, with the publication of “White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War,” he’s filling that hole in the scholarship and trying to bring his findings to the masses.

White House Warriors
(Photo: W. W. Norton & Company)

Gans, who is the director of communications and research at Perry World House, previously served as chief speech writer for former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. After finishing his dissertation in 2014, and leaving government in 2017, he decided to turn the research into a book, doing additional research to add chapters about the NSC staffs of former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump. In all, he combed through nine archives and conducted nearly 100 interviews with staff members from President John F. Kennedy onward.

Here, Gans discusses why he decided to write the book, the concept of “honest brokering” in modern Washington, and what the public should know about the hundreds of staff members who make up today’s NSC led by National Security Advisor John Bolton.


Why did you want to do this book? Why now?

I’m a big believer that there’s a lot more interest and desire to learn about Washington out there, whether it’s in the United States or around the world. Too many people tend to think your everyday American citizen or European doesn’t actually care that much about Washington or the inner workings of it, and I see a great hunger for that. I’m one of these people: I love these types of stories. I love learning about how Washington works and how the world is managed or at least attempted to be managed.

Give me a characterization of who these people are. It sounds like these are people who are under the radar. Almost intentionally so.

I think that’s exactly right. What happened in Washington after World War II is they said, ‘We all need to do a better job of talking about the threats we face and how we meet them as a country.’ And they created this council of the biggest names in national security—one New York Times headline called the group ‘The men who guard the nation,’ above a picture of a bunch of old white men sitting around a table. 

The Council included the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, and more. Congress in their wisdom, said, ‘Well, to get all these people to show up on time at the right meeting, to know what they have to talk about and know what they said in the meeting, we’re going to need a few staffers.’ In one line of law, they created a few jobs. From that little seed and secretarial staff, a 400-person staff grew. They sit in the Executive Office Building next to the White House and report to the national security advisor. 

The story and power of the NSC staff is remarkable. Most people in the United States couldn’t name one staffer, and many couldn’t even name the national security advisor, but absolutely no one can explain what they do. 

Did you find consistency among generations who work there?

There’s definitely a type of person that makes it to the White House, right? I always try to remind people these are human beings. They worry about taking care of their kids, they get scared, they want to be liked by their bosses and colleagues. Even Donald Trump and Barack Obama, they’re human beings. 

But they’re the kind of human beings who say, ‘I want to go make history.’ That’s probably not your average ambition, but it is the ambition of the people who show up in the NSC staff. 

And they come from anywhere. That’s one fun thing about the American system. They come from blue-collar roots in Michigan, the Ivy League, from abroad—one person I profile became an American citizen just so he could work at the NSC. They come from everywhere. They’ve chosen not to pursue more lucrative careers in law or business. They’ve chosen to throw themselves into the public political sphere. And they’ve generally chosen a life of service. It’s an admirable, American story. But when you combine all those things, ambition and drive, and desire to make history, you get a very interesting end result, a person who really wants to help change things. As the book ‘White House Warriors’ demonstrates time and again, on the NSC, they get to do so. 

I imagine there are highs and lows to that.

There are good eggs and bad eggs. Most of these people have got the smarts and the political drive and intelligence to get where they want to go, but I think one of the challenges you have is if you are a staffer, you have a specific view of the world. Your view of the world is from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. What does the world look like from there? And it’s not always exactly how the world is. It’s a very skewed perspective. You’re making decisions and recommendations on parts of the world you may have never been to or been to once. Or you are looking at it on a video teleconference and that’s all you can see. You’re making recommendations about war and peace with limited information, limited time, and sometimes limited experience.  

I speak early in the book about Meghan O’Sullivan, who worked for George W. Bush, as one of the people he called part of his personal band of warriors, which is where the book title ‘White House Warriors’ comes from. O’Sullivan had served in Iraq as a civilian for 18 months, but she helped determine and drive the decision making that helped produce the surge in Iraq in 2007. And she was a very smart person, but that’s a big responsibility. There are parts of that decision that were very wise and courageous, and parts of that decision very shortsighted, and we live with the results today.

Were these people at all hesitant to give you their names?

The one thing I could say is I could always find their names. That was never a problem. Because generally speaking, you can triangulate with enough people to sort of know who they are. There was some hesitance to talk, because staffing is a weird thing, because you are the guy or gal behind the guy, right? 

And so how much responsibility does a staffer actually deserve? And that’s a murky thing for staffers. The default answer from many was, ‘The boss makes the decision, I just make the recommendation.’ But then there are parts of them that really want the credit. And so, there’s a natural tension there. 

What I’d say is that most of the people who were there and worked on the staff appreciate how little was understood about it and wanted to help tell the staff story, even if they didn’t love telling their own stories. Most people who go into government do appreciate that the taxpayer pays their salaries and they’re willing to talk. For those still hesitant, the Bob Woodward trick works: you call all the people that the person doesn’t like and then you say, ‘Well, I’ve talked to these people already.’ And they immediately call you back because they want to make sure their side of the story is heard.

You talk in the book about common law as a guiding principle or code of ethics. What is that?

The national security staff was created in the National Security Act of 1947, which is a massive law. They don’t write laws like this anymore. It created the Air Force, the CIA, the NSC, and what became the Defense Department and Secretary of Defense. That’s one law. And one line of it was the national security staff. That one line created it. But there was no language telling them what they should do. So, they were basically charged with serving the president, serving the council. 

Figuring out what that meant in a very competitive, dynamic, high-stakes environment like national security required some development of norms and traditions, and best practices that everybody handed down. And then, eventually, this sort of role became not legal in the sense of ‘This is what you do,’ but what I call, and a Truman staffer talks about, as Washington common law. ‘This is what everybody does.’ It sort of becomes law by the fact that everybody has done it forever. And it’s a pretty useful description of what people do in Washington when there is a grey area. That grey area requires finding a lot of balances among competing priorities. The balance between the president and members of the council, the balance between a commander in chief and the military, balance between diplomat in chief and other diplomats, each is based on what we’ve done and what is considered the best bipartisan commonly accepted practice. Common law is a good description of what the staff is supposed to do. And one thing they’re not supposed to do is go abroad and pick up a gun or try to do an operation, a raid, run a spy, do those kinds of things. The other thing they’re supposed to be is be ‘honest brokers’—

Which reads like curating?

That’s how it is in the academic literature. This is a term that is pulled from academic literature. Honest brokering. An honest broker is supposed to find the best ideas and present them fairly, with their pros and cons. In the case of national security, a staffer would tell the president the secretary of defense says we should do X, and here’s the pros and cons. Secretary of state says we should do Y; here are the pros and cons, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff says Z; here’s the pros and cons.’ That is generally what is drawn in the academic literature. 

The problem is that’s a hard thing to do in practice. In part, because of who is serving on the staff, right? These are people with opinions. They got where they are because they have opinions, they got where they are because they have the drive to make history, and they are in the room because the president wants them there. 

And so, honest brokering in theory was never a good fit for Washington. And the best example I have is I was interviewing a former member of staff and he goes ‘Well, it really depends on your definition of ‘honest.’ And I laughed, because that’s the most Washington thing I’ve ever heard. ‘Honest is honest, right?’ And he goes, ‘Well, no …’ 

What the practice became is, you give the president all the opinions about what everybody wants to do, X, Y, and Z, and you tell him what you want to do and what you think is a good idea. The argument is it is dishonest to hide your own opinion. It’s an interesting evolution from theory to practice, but also a difficult role to fulfill in the day to day churn of national security. 

What is the relationship between the national security advisor and the actual staff? That seems like the disconnect. Not seeing the team behind the figurehead.

The advisor position was created by Dwight Eisenhower. The national security advisor isn’t the title. The title is ‘Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.’ That is the title. Lyndon Johnson was the first person to ever say the title in public. ‘This is my national security advisor.’ And it continues to be the popularly understood title to this day.

The National Security Advisor runs the staff. The NSC staff is divided between people who work on policy—Russia, Venezuela, trade—and a group of technical people, who actually help run the White House Situation Room. They make sure the satellites are right, the imagery is analyzed, the phone lines work. Which gives the president what he needs to make a phone call to a head of state at any time, or launch nuclear weapons, or see the latest intelligence from the field. That has to be 100-percent fail-proof. And that requires a dedicated group of people. 

And so, the staff all reports to the advisor. It is an impossible job. Advising the president on everything that’s happening in the world, and managing a team of 300 or 400 people is a huge responsibility. When the staff first started it was about 12 or so people. This little institution has grown in the middle of government with very little legal foundation, very little oversight. The national security advisor is not required to give congressional testimony, not required to be confirmed, nobody on the staff is required to be confirmed except an occasional odd example. They are basically shielded from the public and serve whatever the president needs. And that’s a big responsibility. Probably too big for any person.

It seems a major takeaway is that even if you’re not happy with who the national security advisor is, all these other unknown staffers get to speak up in the room.

Absolutely. I lead the book with an example of one staffer sitting with the president just as he was making a big decision, and speaking up. That’s a choice. Sometimes it will backfire. Sometimes it will work or won’t. And just that opportunity is amazing. 

But the other thing is the staff does all the work to make sure the president understands the world. So, it’s not just speaking up, it’s what information you give. What information you emphasize. How is it written? Is it written in a positive way or a negative way? 

There’s a great example that didn’t make it to the book about a secretary of state in the Reagan administration complaining to the president and saying, ‘This isn’t my memo.’ And Reagan looked up and said, ‘This is your name on the memo.” And the secretary of state said, ‘That’s not the one I wrote.’ The issue was the staff knew Reagan liked memos in a certain format: certain margin sizes, fonts. Part of that was he was older, part of it was preferences, part of it is ‘This is what we do. We help him get the information.’ 

But the distrust level was so high in the Reagan administration, where everybody was very competitive and there was antagonism between the secretary of state with the secretary of defense, and the secretary of state with the White House, and the secretary of state said, ‘That’s not my memo. I can’t trust that you got my memo because it has been retyped.’ It says a lot that somebody as powerful as the secretary of state could assume that’s possible.

Anything to add?

I do think this is one of those books that will help people on the outside understand the inside of government in a better way, and some people will come away liking and trusting government more, and some people will come away thinking the opposite. But these are important stories everybody should know. I hope people give it a read.