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Murphy: My family fled Vietnam. Don’t mix politics, national security

February 10, 2017

Orlando Sentinel: Murphy: My family fled Vietnam. Don't mix politics, national security

By Stephanie Murphy

The highest priority of government leaders is to protect the American people.  This solemn responsibility was brought into sharp focus when the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.  The attacks underscored our vulnerability as a nation and the need to strengthen our security policies.  On a personal level, 9-11 led me to leave the private sector and eventually to enter public service, becoming a national security specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

My experience working alongside our men and women in uniform was inspiring because so many had put their lives on the line to serve our country.  It was even more special because, years earlier, U.S. service members rescued my family.

In 1979, when I was just an infant, my family fled Communist Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.  Families associated with the South Vietnamese and American governments, like my own, were at risk of being sent to re-education camps and subjected to forced labor, torture, starvation and disease.  To escape this fate, we and many others — collectively known as the Vietnamese boat people — set off in small ships in search of safer shores. 

Many didn’t survive the passage, and we almost didn’t either.  However, a U.S. Navy vessel discovered us adrift at sea, refueled and resupplied us, and directed us to a Malaysian refugee camp.  We eventually made our way to the United States and became proud citizens.

America’s greatness, born of a unique blend of power and principle, is not an abstract concept to me.  I did not discover it simply from eloquent words on a page or soaring lyrics in an anthem.  Instead, my patriotism is the product of a life lesson, one instilled by U.S. service members bestowing grace upon desperate strangers.

Later, during my time at the Pentagon, I was involved in numerous decisions related to national security.  In light of this experience, I am particularly sensitive to — and troubled by — the prospect of mixing the national security policy-making process with partisan politics.  That is why I recently introduced legislation to prevent politics from interfering with decisions made by the National Security Council, arguably the most vital institution advising the president on issues related to defense, foreign affairs, and intelligence.  At NSC meetings, the stakes could not be higher.  Choices are made about whether to deploy our service members into combat, how to defend the homeland against terrorism, and how to support our allies and counter our adversaries around the globe.

The bill — my first as a member of Congress — has obtained more than 110 cosponsors to date, including leaders on the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees.  Legislation with a similar purpose was subsequently introduced by several U.S. senators.   

The specific action that led me to file this legislation was President Trump’s Jan. 28 directive authorizing the “Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist” — Stephen Bannon — to attend all NSC meetings.  This effectively places Bannon, whose role in the administration has a strong political component, on the same plane as the secretaries of state, defense and homeland security.  Bannon’s appointment has generated concern from respected figures of all political stripes, including Republican Sen. John McCain (who called it a “radical departure” from precedent), former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta, and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen.

Although Bannon may be a controversial figure, particularly among my fellow Democrats, this bill is not about his personal character or party affiliation.  It is about fidelity to a principle — the separation of national security policy making and domestic politics — that is both deeply American and, in light of my background, profoundly personal.

Our men and women in the military, like the ones who rescued my family or the ones I worked with at the Pentagon, should never have their lives placed at risk as the result of a NSC decision that is politically motivated or unduly informed by political calculation.  

Keeping politics off the NSC is not a partisan proposition. Since 1947, when Congress created the NSC, presidents of both parties have sought in good faith to wall off national security policy making from domestic politics to the greatest extent possible.  Of the walls that President Trump is considering, this is one wall worth preserving.