Friday, August 9, 2013
People have been talking a lot lately about the National Security Agency. But there's another important "NSA" in the federal government -- the president's national security adviser.
That person is a sort of funnel -- gathering information from the military, the intelligence community, the State Department -- and channeling it all to the president.
Susan Rice has been in the job for only a month -- but it's been one heck of a month. The day Rice started her new job, Egypt's military overthrew the Egyptian government. Then, the controversy surrounding leaker Edward Snowden blew up. And last week, with both of those fires still raging, another crisis pulled Rice and the national security team into the White House Situation Room: a terrorist threat that led to the closing of U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East and North Africa.
This latest threat has deep personal significance for the new national security adviser. Fifteen years ago this week, Rice was the State Department's undersecretary for African affairs when terrorists blew up two U.S. embassies in East Africa. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands wounded.
Prudence Bushnell, who was the American ambassador to Kenya at the time, says the attack had "a huge impact" on Rice.
"I know it did because she came to visit a few months afterward," Bushnell says. "You couldn't have been in the Department of State without having been impacted -- and certainly not in African affairs."
Last year, Rice was ambassador to the United Nations when terrorists struck again -- this time in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans were killed.
Following that attack, Rice used talking points that were wrong on Sunday morning news shows. That mistake may have kept her from being nominated for secretary of state.
"Susan Rice should have known better," Republican Sen. John McCain said on Fox News, "and if she didn't know better, she's not qualified."
Rice did not need Senate confirmation to be President Obama's national security adviser.
Those crucible experiences shape the person Rice is today. She painfully learned the cost of not doing enough.
Ben Rhodes works closely with Rice as deputy national security adviser at the White House, where, he says, "there's definitely a lean toward action because there's an understanding that there's really no margin for error."
"Action" is a word that comes up a lot when people talk about Rice.
Her predecessor, Tom Donilon, was extremely low-key. Nobody would describe Rice that way.
Instead, people call her style "energetic," "no-nonsense" or "rigorous." At the White House, her meetings start and end on time.
Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution has known Rice for 20 years.
"If someone from an agency is giving her an inadequate answer or giving her the runaround, Susan's going to cut to the chase and say, 'Look, this is what I need to know,' " he says.
Tommy Vietor, who was a White House national security spokesman during Obama's first term, says Rice gets "into the weeds."
"She knows the details. She is tough and smart and will get your attention if you're slipping," Vietor says.
When Rice arrived at the White House a month ago, she made a point to meet each person who works on the National Security Council, Rhodes says.
"And she's gone out of her way to make people know that their work is going to reach the president, and their voice is going to reach the president," he says.
That's one reason national security adviser is such a powerful job: She hears from everyone with a stake in the argument, but the president may hear only from her.
Vietor describes how a typical decision might play out -- say, to close embassies around the world.
"The national security adviser is convening the broader national security apparatus and saying: FBI, CIA, State, Defense, come to the table and let's discuss this. Let's figure out all the implications of these decisions and then let's vote," he explains.
And, he says, they do literally take a vote. "The president gets a number of decisions every day that are unanimous, and he gets many others that are divided."
Some national security advisers weigh in at stakeholder meetings, while others hold their counsel for the president. People in these meetings say, not surprisingly, that Rice expresses a strong view.
During this harried month, folks at the White House say they have more than once heard the president joke with Rice about whether she's sure she wants the job.
It's not too late to back out, he tells her. She always replies: Happy to be here.
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