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According to several news sources, Stephen K. Bannon said in a statement today that "Susan Rice operationalized the NSC [National Security Council] during the last administration" and that he "was put on to ensure that it was de-operationalized”.

The New York Times article dryly remarks that "Mr. Bannon did not explain what he meant by “operationalized” or how his presence on the committee had ensured it would not be."

Merriam-Webster's defines "operationalize" as "to make operational". Operational has several meanings, of which two appear to deserve consideration in this context:

  • of, engaged in, or connected with execution of military or naval operations in campaign or battle;
  • ready for or in condition to undertake a destined function.

It is probably not bad if the National Security Council is in a condition to undertake its actual destined function, and part of this function is certainly "connected" to military operations; so this cannot be what Bannon wanted to revert.

Did Bannon want to suggest that Rice made the NSC ready to perform some other function, i.e. a hidden agenda? Or did he use the word in a completely non-standard fashion? Is the word en vogue in the alt-right movement?

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    You've already given the definition of 'operationalize', and that's the only meaning this site is qualified to answer questions about. Political implications of what Bannon was saying are for another site. our Politics site might be the best place. Apr 6, 2017 at 18:27
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about political implications rather than English language. Apr 6, 2017 at 18:27
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    Without studying the messy details, I would tend to interpret the word to imply that the NSC was taken from a passive "advisor" role to a more active role where it directs what operations are undertaken. Of course the devil is in the details here -- a lot of difference between saying "Hey CIA, could you collect some info about El Dictator du jour?" to planning and carrying out an invasion of Syria.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 6, 2017 at 19:02
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    @DJClayworth DavePHD's answer illustrates very well how this use of "operationalization" is based on a specific meaning of "operation", which is not directly military, but also not just "functioning". If Bannon deplores that the NSC has been made operational he means neither that they finally got a whiteboard and a copier; nor that the NSC's attention shifted from other topics to military ones (those were its concerns all along). He means that they actually did stuff, as opposed to being all talk. "Operational" assumes perhaps aspects of "transactional". Actually what Hot Licks said. Apr 6, 2017 at 21:21

2 Answers 2

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The meaning is explained in the book Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power:

This mission is often cited as marking the “operationalization” of the national security advisor and the NSC—a dangerous line to have crossed in light of mistakes made with later NSC “operations” such as Iran-Contra.

The Yale Law Journal also has a section heading:

The NSC Operationalized

Similarly, the operationalization of the NSC commenced not with the peregrinations of Oliver North, or Robert McFarlane's odyssey to Tehran with Bible and birthday cake, but with Henry Kissinger's secret trip to mainland China...

Also, from the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee record:

Six months after the fact, we learned that the President has "operationalized" the NSC, secretly dispatching his National Security Assistant abroad to conduct discussions with foreign leaders that ran contrary to our public position.

The law creating the NSC stated :

The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and the other departments and agencies of the Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security

So "operationalized" is relative to the "advise" function originally set forth.

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  • @Xanne Is that better now?
    – DavePhD
    Apr 6, 2017 at 20:53
  • Yes. What mission was it that marked the operationalization--just curious. I could look it up. Apparently pre-Reagan presidency.
    – Xanne
    Apr 6, 2017 at 21:02
  • @Xanne The first two references mean Henry Kissinger 's secret 1971 trip to China. The third reference is talking about a person being sent secretly in the timeframe of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
    – DavePhD
    Apr 6, 2017 at 21:09
  • @Xanne Actually I think the third reference means McFarlane's trip to Iran newrepublic.com/article/69832/the-tragedy-bud-mcfarlane
    – DavePhD
    Apr 6, 2017 at 21:15
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    The answer didn't mention it, but it sounds like the connotation of 'operationalize' is similar to 'activating special forces'. It has a sinister quality to it, as though it is to be kept secret and behind the scenes. This would make sense in context as Bannon (probably) believes the previous administration was not upfront about their activities and policies. The word is probably DC beltway jargon.
    – Chloe
    Apr 7, 2017 at 1:20
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It doesn't fit in context with me either. To "-ize" something is to change its nature.

Weaponize - make a weapon version. Dehumanize - render someone less than human.

Then again, Bannon tends to come up with a lot of terms that don't make that much sense, to the point where I'm convinced he's trying to sound "military" and failing badly. In this case, his usage of "operationalize" implies that the NSC was originally tasked to be passive oversight of the nation's security apparatus, not an active participant via Rice's leadership (not that this actually went on, just trying to get a handle on how Bannon sees it.)

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