By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 2:38 PM
President Obama announced Friday that National Security Adviser James L. Jones will leave his post by the end of the month and be replaced by his most senior deputy, Thomas E. Donilon, in a transition that will ensure continuity as the war in Afghanistan enters a decisive phase.
In a Rose Garden ceremony, Obama said he is "extraordinarily thankful" to Jones for coming out of retirement two years ago to join his administration, calling him a "steady voice" during White House briefings and in meetings with foreign leaders. Obama emphasized Jones's work in elevating cybersecurity and climate change as national security priorities, describing them as part of "the new missions of our time."
"Serving as national security adviser is one of the most difficult jobs in government," Obama said. "But through it all, Jim, like the Marine he has always been, has been a dedicated public servant and a friend to me."
Although Jones's departure has been expected, it comes at a delicate time for Obama, as he prepares for an important review of his Afghanistan strategy in December. His appointment of Donilon, a veteran of Washington's foreign policy and political cultures, guarantees that there will be experience and consistency at the top of his national security team, if also a personality far less well-known in foreign capitals.
A retired Marine general, Jones brought decades of national security experience to the post and military credibility to an administration whose senior civilian members have never served in uniform. He expanded the National Security Council to include agencies responsible for American energy, economic and environmental policy, believing that those issues would play a far larger role in shaping U.S. defense and diplomatic strategy in the decades to come.
But Jones, a towering if aloof figure, often had trouble fitting into a National Security Council culture dominated by several hard-charging veterans of Obama's campaign who have known the president for years. His condition for initially taking the job - that he would be the last one to see Obama on the most pressing national security issues of the day - was often unmet.
"I think in many ways he was underrated," said a White House official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal personnel assessments. "But there has been a lame-duck quality to this for months."
During the Afghanistan strategy review last fall, Jones challenged military leaders to justify their troop requests, drawing on his experience as the former supreme allied commander in Europe to do so. Jones often expressed the position that additional troops would not make much difference in Afghanistan until neighboring Pakistan closed down the sanctuaries used by al-Qaeda operatives and Taliban fighters.
The appointment of Donilon, a longtime adviser to now Vice President Biden, appears to ensure a high level of continuity in Obama's national security policy and team, which he has had the largest hand in managing for months.
Obama noted that Donilon has "served three presidents" and brings "a wealth of experience that will serve him well in this new assignment."
"Over the last two years there is not a single national security issue that has not crossed Tom's desk," Obama said, adding that Donilon's renowned work ethic is fueled largely by Diet Coke.
Speaking briefly after Obama, Jones called Donilon, who was standing at his side, "an extraordinary ally and one of the hardest working human beings I have ever seen."
"The only advice I could give him is that when he becomes the national security adviser that he finds himself a deputy just like he was to me," Jones said. "You have been the man who has kept the trains running on time, and your energy and your dedication is without equal. And I thank you."
Donilon has run the "deputies meetings" that gather the No. 2-ranking officials from across the national security bureaucracy, turning it into an even more important and influential venue for initial policy decisions and strategy.
"Operationally Tom has been running the National Security Council since the start," the official said. "Jones was kind of a CEO and Tom has been the COO."
During the Afghanistan strategy review last fall, Donilon was credited with overseeing the complicated process, which often pitted the uniformed military against White House civilian advisers over the value of sending additional troops to an increasingly unpopular war that just entered its 10th year.
Like Jones, Donilon also questioned the need for additional forces in the region - a position Obama eventually rejected by sending 30,000 additional U.S. troops in a "surge" that will begin to draw down in July 2011.
Donilon is personally and professionally close to Biden, who argued most forcefully for a strategy in Afghanistan that would rely on fewer troops and more targeted counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda. Donilon's wife, Cathy Russell, serves as chief of staff to Biden's wife, Jill Biden.
Donilon hardly knew Obama before being brought onto his campaign to help him prepare for the 2008 presidential debates. He is also personally close to former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and was on a very short list to fill that post after Emanuel's recent resignation to run for mayor of Chicago.
Jones made clear that he intended to serve no more than two years. But several administration officials said Friday that his departure was accelerated by the publication of Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars," which portrayed Jones as a deeply unhappy figure often on the edge of important policy decisions.
By contrast, Donilon is part of a cadre of deputy national security advisers to whom Obama has often turned before more senior administration officials, including Jones, on an array of foreign policy matters.
The practice has concentrated enormous power in the NSC, often to the consternation of the State Department and other foreign-policymaking agencies.
Those deputies include Denis McDonough, a foreign policy pragmatist with Capitol Hill experience and a close relationship with the president. Although Obama was not expected to announce Friday who will replace Donilon as the most senior deputy national security adviser, McDonough, a fierce defender of the president, is the most likely to be elevated.
Along with McDonough, Obama relies on John O. Brennan, a deputy national security adviser who is his chief counterterrorism adviser, and Ben Rhodes, the NSC strategic communications director who has helped write some of Obama's most important foreign policy speeches. Jones often felt overshadowed by those deputies and out of the loop on day-to-day matters.
In July, Brennan sent out an e-mail with news of bombings in Iran apparently carried out by Sunni Muslim insurgents. On the recipient list were Emanuel, Rhodes, Donilon and McDonough. Jones, the national security adviser, was not included because, senior officials said, he was traveling in South Asia at the time.
In a series of e-mails, the advisers decided to include the attacks in the presidential daily briefing the next morning. They also recommended that the State Department issue a statement later in the day that would be followed by one from the White House - a process that played out exactly that way.
Unlike Jones, Donilon, who served as Secretary of State Warren Christopher's chief of staff during the Clinton administration, has been a consummate behind-the-scenes player in Washington for decades with little profile beyond the Beltway.
That began to change last month when he traveled to China with Lawrence H. Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser who will be returning to a teaching post at Harvard at the end of the year. Donilon and Summers met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, among other top officials, during a visit that focused in large part on China's currency.
Jon Alterman, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Donilon "has had his hands in the middle of every single policy decision this administration has made."
"And if there's any way to avoid a shift in policy, it's to have someone who has been involved in every policy debate and decision take control," Alterman said.
He said Jones viewed his role "as a private emissary of the president," often traveling to Pakistan, Russia and important strategic allies on Obama's behalf.
"Whether Donilon is going to seek that role, and how well he could carry out that role if he does, is something we're going to have to see," Alterman said. "But it seems on the policy level that we are not going to see much of a shift."
Donilon is almost universally described as a "straight shooter" and a tireless worker. But he has had his detractors, including some at high levels.
In Woodward's book, he reported that Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said Donilon would be a "disaster" as national security adviser. The two were often at odds during the Afghanistan strategy review.
In a Friday news conference, Gates said, "I have had a very productive and good working relationship with Tom Donilon, contrary to what you may have read, and continue to look forward to working with him."
A senior Pentagon official acknowledged that there was tension between Gates and Donilon during the Afghanistan review. But the official said the two had enjoyed a close working relationship over the past several months.
"It was a highly contentious time," the official said. "But the issues have been addressed and overcome."
The official described the reports of tension between the two men as "way outdated."
"Gates is looking forward and not backwards," the official said.
In a statement, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said he has "benefited greatly" from Jones's "wisdom, experience and mentorship - especially as we have labored together to prosecute two wars and meet a host of security commitments around the world."
Mullen said he has found Donilon "equally dedicated to our national security," and that he "looks forward to an even closer relationship moving forward."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that Jones "will be sorely missed." She called Donilon " a talented and dedicated" public servant, saying he "has a proven ability to translate big-picture vision into concrete action."
Staff writer Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.