WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's elevation of his chief political strategist to a major role in national security policy, and a White House order banning refugees from certain Muslim-majority countries from U.S. entry, appeared to come together as cause and effect over the weekend.
Stephen Bannon — whose nationalist convictions and hard-line oppositional view of globalism have long guided Trump — was directly involved in shaping the controversial immigration mandate, according to several people familiar with the drafting who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The order, which has ignited sweeping domestic and international backlash, came without the formal input of Trump's National Security Council, the committee of top national security aides designed to ensure the president examines all policy issues from different perspectives.
In Trump's case, the NSC has not yet been fully formed. Key department heads, including the secretary of state, have either not been confirmed or had little chance to be briefed by those under them.
But even as the mechanism for full consultation with defense, diplomatic, intelligence and other national security chiefs remains incomplete, Bannon's policy influence was established late Saturday in a presidential directive that gave him something no previous president has bestowed on a political adviser: a formal seat at the NSC table.
The same directive appeared to downgrade the status of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence — the president's senior intelligence and military advisers under statute — by limiting their attendance to some meetings.
Former President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, called the measure "stone cold crazy" in a tweet on Sunday. Former Obama defense secretary and CIA director Robert Gates, who said he was unconcerned about Bannon's role, told ABC's This Week that "pushing the DNI and Joint Chiefs chairman out of the National Security Council meetings, except when their specific issues are at stake, is a big mistake."
Every president finds their judgment useful, "whether they like it or not," Gates added.
A senior NSC official said Sunday that negative interpretations of both measures misunderstood both the intention and the effect of a directive whose overall aim was to make policy formation more inclusive and more efficient.
Bannon "is a trusted adviser," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal organization. "He's got substantial policy responsibilities, and I think it's very important that he is there to hear and to provide context to what is going on."
"I think, candidly, that things in Washington, everything is political," this official said. "We wanted to make sure that all viewpoints were considered at critical points."
Despite his listing in the NSC organizational chart, Bannon "doesn't have to be there all the time," the official said.
The intelligence and military chiefs, the official said, "are invited as attendees to every single NSC meeting. ... There's nowhere in that document that says they are excluded."
While they are listed as attendees to meetings of the NSC — the highest decision-making body, chaired by the president — the directive says they will attend meetings of the national security principals meeting without Trump "where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed."
In surveying senior officials from previous administrations, those charged with organizing the NSC were frequently told meetings were too frequent, too long and often inconclusive, and that officials were "tired of nano-management," the official said of Obama-era complaints that were well-reported at the time.
K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser, began her first meeting of NSC deputies Friday by saying that "this going to be tight ... 90 minutes. You're going to come in, going to have your positions, going to be a decision-making body. The feedback we got was great," the official said.
The directive, based on a template that all modern presidents have used in organizing national security decision-making, changed a number of things from the Obama White House. From 23 deputy national security advisers under Obama, there are now only six under Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, dealing with regions, issues including cyber and counterterrorism and functions such as legal matters.
Some offices such as cyber have been expanded, while others have been collapsed. Obama's separate directorates on Europe and Russia have now been combined, the official said.
While Obama was criticized for the size of his NSC staff, and Congress enacted legislation to shrink the number of bodies, Rice cut it by about 17% in recent years to fewer than 180 policy positions. Trump's is unlikely to be much smaller, the official said, and numbers were a secondary consideration. All positions on the White House payroll have now been filled, and those detailed from other agencies — usually appointed for two-year secondments — will eventually rotate out.
Outside the White House, reaction to the new NSC organizational directive was less positive, with some saying that the immigration directive suffered from jumping ahead of the normal policy process, allowing it and other orders to be composed by political operatives such as Bannon and Stephen Miller, the White House senior adviser for policy, who is a Bannon ally and a former aide to Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump's populist and conservative nominee for attorney general.
Senior Trump officials offered differing public explanations for the Bannon appointment. Asked what the strategist contributed to NSC discussions, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told This Week that Bannon "is a former naval officer. He's got a tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now."
Photo: Marion Doss/U.S. Navy
Asked if Bannon was "giving advice" on national security matters, Spicer said he was contributing analysis. "It's about the intelligence that comes in and the analysis that comes out of that," he said. "Having key decision-makers, and the chief strategist for the United States for the president to come in and talk about what the strategy is going forward is crucial."
Bannon has no job experience in foreign policy. After serving in the Navy for seven years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, his eclectic career took him to Goldman Sachs, to consulting to documentary filmmaking and then to the running of Breitbart News, a far-right website known for peddling conspiracy theories.
From his perch as chief of the Breitbart News empire, which produced a satellite radio show, Bannon cemented his role as a champion of the alt-right, an anti-globalism movement that has attracted support from white supremacists and helped power Trump's populist White House victory.
Trump sees Bannon as a generational peer who shares his anti-establishment instincts and confrontational style. According to several people familiar with their relationship, Bannon has cultivated a rapport with Trump over security issues in recent months, and impressed Trump with his grasp of policy in talks they have held together with top intelligence and military officials.
The new president relies on Bannon to ensure that his campaign promises and nationalist worldview are being followed and are shaping national security strategy. Trump's approval of Bannon's new role is seen inside the White House as the formalization of a dynamic that has already been at work for weeks, these people said.
For many outside the White House, the optics of Bannon's NSC appointment were bad, regardless of the motivation or the substance of his participation.
In previous administrations, political advisers have been banned from national security discussions — or at least not publicly acknowledged.
George W. Bush barred his political strategist, Karl Rove, from NSC meetings, according to Josh Bolten, Bush's chief of staff. "The president told Karl Rove, "You may never come to a National Security Council meeting," " Bolten said at a conference on the NSC and politics last fall.
"It wasn't because he didn't respect Karl's advice or didn't value his input," Bolten said. "But the president also knew that the signal he wanted to send to the rest of his administration, the signal he wanted to send to the public, and the signal he especially wanted to send to the military is that the decisions I'm making that involve life and death for the people in uniform will not be tainted by any political decisions."
While Obama did not include political strategist David Axelrod in his own NSC organizational directive, Axelrod frequently showed up at the meetings — particularly those having to do with strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq — to the consternation of Gates and others.
"It is true that the Obama administration did it," said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who served on the Bush NSC staff. "It's also true that we Republicans, myself included, sharply criticized them for doing it, precisely on the grounds that you are feeding the image that politics drove the decision."
Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.
CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."
Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.
According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.
While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.
Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.
Two letters per month
The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.
Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."
A form of punishment
Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.
Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.
Outside the gates of Tora Prison
Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.
This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.
During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.
Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.
He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.
Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.
It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.
In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.
Marked in red
According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."
Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.
Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.
According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.
Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."
Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court
Fear of being forgotten
Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.
"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."
Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."
Looking for something to say
During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."
After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.
Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.
Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.
News about COVID-19
In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.
Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.
Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.
Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.
"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."
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