“The Obama-Biden Administration set up the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense to prepare for future pandemics like covid-19. Donald Trump eliminated it — and now we’re paying the price.”

—Former vice president Joe Biden, in a tweet, March 19

Several readers have written The Fact Checker, saying they were confused by dueling opinion articles that appeared in The Washington Post concerning the National Security Council office highlighted in Biden’s tweet.

On March 13, The Post published an article by Beth Cameron, a former Obama administration official, titled “I ran the White House pandemic office. Trump closed it.” She argued that “eliminating the office,” which she headed from September 2016 to March 2017, “has contributed to the federal government’s sluggish domestic response” to the coronavirus pandemic.

Three days later, The Post published an article by Tim Morrison, a former Trump administration official, titled “No, the White House didn’t ‘dissolve’ its pandemic response office. I was there.” He countered that office, which he oversaw for about a year starting in July 2018, was folded into another one to streamline a bloated organization and “the combined directorate was stronger because related expertise could be commingled.”

Rearranging organizational charts and bureaucratic intrigue is part of the lifeblood of official Washington, but it can have meaningful consequences for Americans. The government works effectively when the right people are in the right place to make decisions — and the Trump administration’s stumbling response to the coronavirus suggests the government is not working as effectively as it could.

Asked at a congressional hearing on March 11 whether it was a mistake to eliminate the office, Anthony S. Fauci, who runs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, diplomatically said: “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as a mistake. I would say we worked very well with that office. It would be nice if the office was still there.”

Can one office really make a difference? At a news conference on March 13, President Trump dismissed this as a “nasty” question. Let’s explore.

The Facts

The National Security Council staff is supposed to help the president coordinate the government response to international crises and homeland security issues, by identifying emerging problems and making sure Cabinet agencies and other departments are working cooperatively.

After Barack Obama became president in 2009, he eliminated the White House Health and Security Office, which worked on international health issues. But after grappling with the 2014 Ebola epidemic, Obama in 2016 established a Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the NSC. A directorate has its own staff, and it is headed by someone who generally reports to the national security adviser.

The structure survived during the early part of Trump’s presidency, when the office was headed by Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer. But, after John Bolton became Trump’s third national security adviser, he decided the organizational chart was a mess and led to too many conflicts. He also thought the staff was too large, having swollen to 430 people, including staffers in the pipeline.

Bolton fired Tom Bossert, the homeland security adviser, realigning the post to report directly to him. He eliminated a number of deputy national security advisers so there was just one. And he folded the global health directorate into a new one that focused on counterproliferation and biodefense. Ziemer departed for a high-level post in the U.S. Agency for International Development, though a former administration official said he was due to leave the NSC anyway. His staff, whom Ziemer had called “the dream team,” remained in place.

Bolton thought there was obvious overlap between arms control and nonproliferation, weapons of mass destruction terrorism, and global health and biodefense, the former official said, saying the epidemiology of a biological health emergency is very similar to a bioterrorism attack. Morrison, who headed the combined office beginning in July 2018, was named a deputy assistant to the president and thus had more bureaucratic clout than Ziemer, who was only a senior director.

Each directorate is housed in its own “vault,” so to speak, so classified information can be left on a person’s desk overnight. “Having those people in the same vault means that they don’t have to walk out of the office, walk down the hall, knock on the door to have someone let them in,” another former administration official said, allowing for easier communication among staff members. A number of major projects that had been stalled in bureaucratic fights, such as a National Biodefense Strategy, finally were completed after the reorganization.

“I did not feel a change” in focus, said a third former administration official, who had worked under Ziemer at the NSC. Bolton “was very dedicated to the issues we had been working on.”

As far as we can determine, the positions that made up the old unit still are filled within the NSC, most in the nonproliferation directorate; one was moved to another directorate. Morrison worked closely with Bolton and could get things quickly to his attention; he eventually moved to a different position and then left the government.

“During the summer of 2018, NSC merged three directorates into one to reduce the seam between those preparing for biological threats whether they are man-made or naturally occurring,” said NSC spokesman John Ullyot. “No director-level positions were eliminated during this process, and the organization retained its subject matter expertise under a different organizational structure.” He added that under Bolton’s replacement, Robert C. O’Brien, “no NSC biodefense director positions were eliminated under right-sizing.”

Critics say the changes were shortsighted in the long run. Ron Klain, the Ebola “czar” appointed by Obama and a Biden campaign adviser, said biodefense and pandemic prevention require different skill sets and expertise. He said the move was akin to terminating the fire department chief and putting the firefighters in the police department. “The next time you have a fire, they will send a police car with a couple of firefighters in the back,” he said.

“A pandemic is an odd policy challenge because it straddles a lot of other things,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, who served in the Obama administration, citing global health; diplomacy; domestic health policy; border and travel controls; foreign aid; and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive materials threats. “But it is always a subordinate priority in any of those other streams, which leads to a fragmented and disconnected policy process.”

“During the Ebola operation, we really struggled with initially a lot of kind of bifurcation within the national security staff, between the international side and the domestic side, between the health people and the disaster people,” Konyndyk said. “And so the different elements of that Ebola response didn’t roll up together into a coherent whole until Ron Klain was appointed as the Ebola czar.”

“I accept the proposition that it is hard to know whether things would have been different if the right structure had been in place,” Klain said. “But without the right structure, there was zero chance it was going to work.”

One key issue during such reorganizations is whether policy expertise is maintained. Anthony Ruggiero, the current senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense, has a background mostly in North Korea policy, for instance.

Luciana Borio, the previous director for medical and biodefense preparedness, is a practicing medical doctor and has an extensive background in medical health preparedness.

Borio left the NSC in March 2019 and in recent months has co-written a series of farsighted articles on how to prepare for the pandemic. “Act now to prevent an American epidemic,” which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 28, warned there would be a shortage of tests unless the private sector was involved. The White House would not confirm the name of Borio’s replacement.

Without the right expertise, an official may not know the right questions — the hard questions — to ask of their counterparts in other agencies, who are often subject matter experts themselves.

“The NSC doesn’t make policy but it does (and must) make sure that the Department-level policymakers are focused on the right questions and understanding the landscape beyond just their own agencies’ perspectives,” Konyndyk said. “In this case the questions were pretty obvious and straightforward to anyone with outbreak experience: could a Wuhan-like outbreak happen here (Yes), are we ready for that (No), what are agencies doing to prepare the country for that contingency while working to avert it (not much, as it has turned out).”

The Biden campaign defended his tweet. A campaign official noted the first recommendation of a bipartisan report that was issued in November:

“The U.S. government should re-establish a directorate for global health security and biodefense on the National Security Council (NSC) staff and should name a senior-level leader in charge of coordinating U.S. efforts to anticipate, prevent, and respond to biological crises. These actions will ensure that the necessary leadership, authority, and accountability is in place to protect the United States from a deadly and costly health security emergency….It remains unclear who would be in charge at the White House in the case of a grave pandemic threat or cross-border biological crisis, whether natural, accidental, or deliberate.”

Indeed, Trump initially on Jan. 29 named Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar as chair of a coronavirus task force, with a coordinating role played by the NSC. A month later, Vice President Pence took charge.

One former administration official dismissed the debate over the NSC office as a relic of another type of presidency. “There isn’t any organizational chart in the U.S. government that makes any difference in the Trump administration,” the official said. “ Trump is more likely to say to Jared [Kushner], ‘What do you think we should do?’ That’s the big problem.”

The Pinocchio Test

One can see the dueling narratives here, neither entirely incorrect. The office — as set up by Obama — was folded into another office. Thus, one could claim the office was eliminated. But the staff slots did not disappear and at least initially the key mission of team remained a priority. So one can also claim nothing changed and thus Biden’s criticism is overstated.

The question that cannot be answered — at least perhaps until a congressionally mandated commission examines the U.S. preparation for this crisis — is whether a separate directorate would have had more clout to bring the issue immediately to the president’s attention. That might have helped buy time to stem the spread of the disease by focusing the full attention of government on the emerging problem. (One example: China refused to let American experts into Wuhan — a discussion kept at the agency level. But early presidential pressure might have swayed Beijing to cooperate.)

For that reason, we will leave this unrated.

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