An Honest Broker

The national security advisor of James Mann's profile bears little resemblance to the Tom Donilon I know.


As chief of staff at the CIA and the Pentagon over the past four years, I had regular contact with Tom Donilon and his senior team at the National Security staff (NSS). We spoke frequently and worked hand-in-glove on some of the most important national security decisions in our nation’s history — the effort to decimate al Qaeda’s senior leadership, including the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden; the end of the Iraq war; the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; the new defense strategy unveiled by President Obama in January 2012; and the challenges posed by nuclear tests and missile launches from North Korea.

Tom has brought discipline, rigor, and a strategic approach to the NSS process. He directed his staff to prepare volumes of material — all of which he consumed and utilized. He chaired meetings of enormous consequence. He brought the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of defense into his office for small group discussions on the most sensitive national security issues from strategic cooperation with Israel to missile defense. He facilitated weekly meetings between my then-boss Secretary Panetta and the president, the kind of close access that is the cornerstone of a cabinet secretary’s authority. He engaged with foreign leaders to advance U.S. national security interests. He carefully studied intelligence products and brought intelligence leaders in for a weekly meeting to coordinate operations. And he did all of this while empowering his deputies, listening to cabinet officials, carefully preparing the president for major decisions, and exercising the sound judgment you would expect from the national security advisor.

The critiques of Tom leveled in Mann’s article ("Obama’s Gray Man") are off the mark. He has been deeply engaged in foreign affairs for more than 20 years. He served as a senior official at the State Department in the 1990s. During the George W. Bush administration, Tom stayed involved with think tanks, boards, and other national security forums. He has good political judgment, but he is not partisan. (People often forget the distinction.) Like Jim Baker, he can counsel on political matters while considering alternative views and ensuring that partisanship stops "at the water’s edge." He undoubtedly is tough on his staff, but he doesn’t ask anyone to work harder than he does. He is a vigorous defender of the president, to be sure, but more so he is a vigorous defender of the presidency, as White House staff should be.

I have quarreled with Tom many times on issues large and small. But he always argued on the merits. He always gave the agency and department leaders their say. And he always respected the result, regardless of whose argument won the day.

The no-drama teamwork of the Obama administration’s national security team is due in large measure to Tom’s leadership. Your future reporting should credit him with at least this.

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