Inside Hillary Clinton’s Massive Foreign-Policy Brain Trust

The campaign has enlisted several hundred experts to advise the former secretary of state. Is it too big to fail?

TOPSHOT - Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton speaks at her primary night party February 9, 2016 at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett, New Hampshire.
Clinton, who suffered a deflating if expected defeat to Bernie Sanders, put a brave face on the loss and admitted she had some work to do as the campaign moves south. / AFP / Don EMMERT        (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton speaks at her primary night party February 9, 2016 at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett, New Hampshire. Clinton, who suffered a deflating if expected defeat to Bernie Sanders, put a brave face on the loss and admitted she had some work to do as the campaign moves south. / AFP / Don EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Every day, in offices across Washington, scores of foreign-policy advisors who Hillary Clinton has never met are drafting policy memos for her that she will never read.

The group of advisors is so large, officials in the Clinton campaign cannot offer a definitive estimate of its size. “Several hundred” is the stock answer. It is so decentralized, officials admit they no longer directly control its membership.

Despite its unwieldiness, this network of policy experts has become one of Clinton’s most important weapons against her challenger for the Democratic nomination for president, Bernie Sanders. Not only does her phalanx of surrogates routinely bash the Vermont senator for his views on foreign policy, their vast breadth has created the impression that Clinton has locked up the Democratic Party’s entire stable of foreign-policy hands.

For the Clinton campaign, size matters — and Sanders’s comparatively shallow team of advisors reinforces the notion that he won’t be ready to lead the country on Day One. The campaign prefers this attack on Sanders because it differs somewhat from the unsuccessful charge that Clinton directed at then-Sen. Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential primary.

“What’s the difference between what you said about then-Senator Obama and what you’re saying about Senator Sanders?” NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Clinton last Sunday, referring to her repeated claims about Sanders’s inexperience on foreign policy.

There’s a very big difference,” Clinton responded.

Obama “had developed a network of advisors on national security and foreign-policy issues,” she said. “That’s not happening in this campaign. There really isn’t any kind of foreign-policy network that is supporting and advising Senator Sanders.”


As much as Sanders has tried to prove the contrary, his interaction with leading national security minds appears limited to one-off meetings with prominent Washington think tankers and the occasional U.S. government official. After the senator came under fire for his lack of foreign-policy credentials earlier this month, the campaign sent out a list of individuals Sanders has met with, including Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Tamara Cofman Wittes, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. In releasing the list, it’s unclear if the campaign was aware that Cofman Wittes is in fact a senior advisor on the Clinton campaign’s Middle East working group — an easy mistake to make, given Clinton’s monopolization of the D.C. talent pool.

The Sanders campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this report.

Clinton’s massive network, despite having only two full-time foreign-policy professionals on staff, is a result of her frontrunner status and longtime ties to the party establishment. At the top is policy director Jake Sullivan, who served as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff when she was secretary of state, and Laura Rosenberger, a former State Department official who runs day-to-day operations and long-term planning.

This report is based on interviews with a half dozen people tied to Clinton’s campaign, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

According to officials close to the campaign, Sullivan and Rosenberger interact routinely with a senior group of outside advisors that includes former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Center for a New American Security CEO Michèle Flournoy, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and a number of other high-profile luminaries.

Beyond the top roster of experts, the campaign also draws on about a dozen advisory working groups for regional and functional issues on everything from Asia to Europe to human rights to defense to counterterrorism to cyber. Those working groups also contain subgroups of specific countries or issue areas, and remain on call to answer spur-of-the-moment policy questions for the campaign.

Limiting the size of Clinton’s advisory team is not a concern of the former secretary of state’s top aides.

The campaign gives a group of “senior partners” authority to select the experts who make up each advisory working group, and in some cases, Clinton’s top aides aren’t even aware of who the experts are. If an outside expert agrees to join a foreign-policy advisory team, they sign an agreement promising not to disclose the names of other advisors in their working groups.

As a result of this decentralized system, the campaign boasts a surprisingly diverse cadre of experts, from early-career think tankers in their 20s to graying ex-diplomats in their 50s and 60s. Everybody gets to be an advisor to Hillary Clinton.

The advantages of a vast advisor pool are manifold.

Throughout the year, these think tankers and ex-diplomats draft memos, talking points, and position papers to prepare Clinton for every possible question she may confront on the campaign trail. Clinton’s top aides believe the campaign’s Asia hands have already proven vital in the wake of North Korea’s recent nuclear provocations.

Still, some Clinton insiders questioned the utility of generating reams of policy memos on low-profile issues such as elections in Vietnam and Uganda or multilateral summits in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. “I’d be amazed if my memo gets anywhere near a full-time campaign staffer,” said one advisor.

But free advice isn’t the only advantage to having a big foreign-policy team. One expert said the system helped ensure loyalty for Clinton by creating “the illusion of inclusion.”

“Even though you’re one of hundreds, you feel like you’re part of the team,” said one prominent think tank scholar.

It’s the type of dynamic that can make an outside expert think twice before tweeting a snarky reaction to a Clinton gaffe or offering a less-than-flattering quote to a reporter. The end goal for many experts is to parlay a stint on an advisory group into a plum job in a future Clinton administration.

Ideologically, the army of advisors includes a mix of both hawks and doves — and longtime acolytes of both Clinton and Obama.

The campaign’s Middle East working group is led by senior advisors Wittes and Derek Chollet, a former Obama administration official, and coordinator Prem Kumar, a senior vice president at the Albright Stonebridge Group. A broad scattering of Middle East experts work under this group, including Bruce Jentleson, a former State Department official; Bernadette Meehan, a diplomat and former spokeswoman for the National Security Council; and Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

The campaign’s counterterrorism working group is led by Rand Beers, a former Homeland Security official; Dan Benjamin, a former State Department official; and coordinator Matt Spence, a former Pentagon official. The human rights working group is led by former State Department officials Harold Koh and Mike Posner. The Europe and Russia working group is led by Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia; Phil Gordon, a former Obama White House official; and Julie Smith, former deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.

Other individuals, such as Dan Kurtz-Phelan, a fellow at the New America think tank, help Rosenberger coordinate with the vast swath of advisors.

Besides offering advice, the experts occasionally have to get their hands dirty, too.

Following the Democratic debate on Feb. 4, the Clinton campaign hosted a conference call for reporters with Benjamin, who pilloried Sanders’s performance.

“He seems not to have really studied up on a lot of key issues,” said Benjamin. “His answers on North Korea seemed kind of pedestrian and not fully informed.”

Weeks earlier, the campaign blasted out a letter signed by its advisors criticizing Sanders’s call to “move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.”

“We are concerned that Senator Sanders has not thought through these crucial national security issues that can have profound consequences for our security,” wrote 10 Clinton advisors in an open letter.

The Sanders campaign routinely pushes back that the Vermont senator, unlike then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, demonstrated the wisdom of voting against the Iraq war authorization in 2002 — a move that likely cost Clinton her primary bid in 2008.

“On the most important issue of our time, I was right, Hillary Clinton was wrong,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation last Sunday.

Rejecting what he called a “media narrative” that he is not strong on foreign policy, he said he’s confident he can “put together a strong team to provide great foreign policy for the people of the U.S.”

After nearly tying Clinton in Iowa’s caucus vote and trouncing her by more than 20 points in the New Hampshire primary, the pressure on Sanders to finally build his team is greater than ever. But if that’s his plan, he needs to start recruiting new advisors before they all commit to Clinton — or begin poaching.

Photo credit: Don Emmert/Getty Images

Corrections, Feb. 10, 2016: Michèle Flournoy is the CEO of the Center for a New American Security; a previous version of this article mistakenly referred to her as its president. The last Democratic debate occurred on Thursday, Feb. 4; a previous version of this article said the debate took place last weekend.