More coverage: Steve Bannon’s role in National Security Council raises questions, concerns

One of the signature legislative accomplishments of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ time in office was the 2004 passage of a sweeping overhaul of the country’s intelligence community that included creation of a director of national intelligence to serve as one of the president’s principal advisers.

Among the wide-ranging duties assigned to the position was to serve on the National Security Council’s principals committee that deals with critical foreign policy questions that include terrorism and war.

But not anymore.

Collins, a Maine Republican, said Monday she’s “very concerned” about a decision by President Donald Trump to restructure the panel to downgrade the status of the national intelligence director and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from full members attending all meetings to attendance when appropriate.

At the same time, Trump gave seats to Steve Bannon, his controversial chief strategist, and Tom Bossert, the White House assistant dealing with homeland security and counterterrorism.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, called Bannon’s appointment “dangerous. He has no qualifications whatsoever, that I can see, to be involved in the national security and foreign policy decision-making process.”

He added, “What happened over the weekend is a good example of what happens when you don’t have a number of experienced voices in forming what is really very significant policy that could affect this country for generations.”

Trump press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday the intelligence and military chiefs are always welcome at any of the sessions, but he didn’t address why the administration changed the makeup to end their permanent membership.

Collins said she “cannot imagine not wanting the intelligence director to be a part of every” session, given the crucial nature of intelligence for any of the high-level decisions facing officials. She said the panel basically argues and debates among itself until it agrees on what advice to bring to the president.

The military and intelligence leaders, she said, are the only people “who can provide a comprehensive overview” on many of the issues that land in the panel’s lap.

Collins said that in the last two administrations, political aides such as Karl Rove and David Axelrod sometimes attended the committee meetings, but were never a formal part of the organization.

She said the president needs to have “neutral, nonpolitical, unbiased advisers on intelligence and military issues.”

Bannon is a former movie producer and ex-head of the conservative Breitbart News. He is such a bogeyman with liberals that the Maine Democratic Party referred to “the terrifying elevation of white-supremacist Steve Bannon into a national security role” in an appeal to its supporters Monday.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat whose 1st District includes Portland, said weeks ago that Bannon “is someone who has offended and disrespected wide swaths of the American people” and shouldn’t be in the White House if Trump “wants to unify the country like he says he does.”

Collins told Maine Public that Bannon “does not have the expertise that the director of national intelligence or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have” and called his elevation “entirely inappropriate.”

The move installs Bannon at the table with the secretary of state, secretary of defense, the national security adviser and other positions that have a long history of decision-making clout.

“The idea that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the (director of national intelligence) are being downgraded or removed is utter nonsense,” Spicer said during a news briefing at the White House. He said they are “are at every NSC meeting and are welcome to attend the principals’ meetings as well.”

Despite Spicer’s words, the membership level for both was diminished under the executive order Trump signed Saturday that added Bannon. Instead of leaving both slots as full members, Trump’s order said they would only attend NSC sessions “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.”

Spicer framed it to the news media as saying the officials are “not required but certainly welcome to be in attendance” at principals’ meetings. “We recognize that certain homeland security issues may not be military issues and it would not be in the best interest of the joint chiefs’ valuable time to be at these meetings,” he said.

Spicer also said the Central Intelligence Agency head, also axed, will be restored to the committee.

Collins teamed up in 2004 with U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., to push through the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act with strong bipartisan support over the initial opposition of the Bush administration.

In keeping with recommendations from the 9/11 Commission, it aimed to reorganize the executive branch to ensure that all of the country’s many intelligence programs were feeding information through a central point with easy access to the president.

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