The job of a president’s national security adviser often resembles the challenge of jaywalking across an eight-lane boulevard without being run over. The jockeying among Cabinet members, the grinding interagency process, the traps and manholes that arise, not to mention crisis management, are enough to fray the nerves of even the steeliest aide.
President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was awakened at home just after 2:26 a.m., on June 3, 1980. He was told that two intercontinental ballistic missiles were headed toward the United States. After the first signals, the displays showed even more missiles coming. After three minutes, the alert was ended — a false alarm, caused by the failure of a computer chip, but for those minutes, all too real.
If the adrenaline rush is not enough, imagine the headaches in sorting out feuds between the secretaries of state and defense, as happened under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. He went through six national security advisers in eight years.
President Trump’s choice for the job seems confident that everything will come up roses. Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn tweeted Thursday night:
It is a shame to dampen his enthusiasm, but the world does not work this way. To predict victory at everything is to be disconnected from reality. The national security adviser is supposed to be the one who connects the president to reality. What Flynn offers — and what Donald Trump has promoted all year — is a magic elixir, a lovely vacation from all troubles. One may dismiss Trump’s boasts as political slogans, but does Flynn, the man who will get the call in the middle of the night, actually believe his own irrational exuberance?
Let’s imagine his first day in the West Wing. An aide delivers to the national security adviser some bad news: Hackers have infiltrated the personnel files of the U.S. government and stolen the personal information of 4.2 million former and current government employees, and they’ve grabbed sensitive security clearance background information on 21 million people. Also, the fingerprint data of 5.6 million people was stolen. Some of them are U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officers in the field. The private information could be harmful in the wrong hands. The files are gone, it is too late to stop the thieves and they did not leave an address.
This actually happened not too long ago at the Office of Personnel Management, in what is certainly one of the worst cyberattacks ever on the U.S. government. How do you “win and win and win at everything” when you can’t even identify who the enemy is? This is the reality of shadowy and vexing cyberconflict that has been intensifying in recent years — perpetrators sneaking up at network speed, nearly impossible to identify, a war that can be entirely asymmetric, meaning that the little guys can win, win and win again.
Shall we move on to Day Two?