National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster has removed Derek Harvey, the top Middle East advisor on the National Security Council (NSC), from his post on Thursday, according to a source with knowledge of the personnel move. The White House confirmed the decision, but the reason behind it was not immediately clear.

The two men had a long relationship that dated back to their Army service in Iraq and their shared mentor of retired Gen. David Petraeus, but they had been known to have butted heads during their short time together in the Donald Trump administration.  

“General McMaster greatly appreciates Derek Harvey’s service to his country as a career Army officer, where he served his country bravely in the field and played a crucial role in the successful surge in Iraq, and also for his service on Capitol Hill and in the Trump administration,” NSC spokesman Michael Anton said in an email. “The administration is working with Colonel Harvey to identify positions in which his background and expertise can be best utilized.”

Harvey had been picked for his role on the NSC by McMaster’s predecessor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. After Trump reluctantly removed Flynn in February, a handful of Flynn’s people left, but Harvey and others remained in their jobs. 

Harvey is a retired Army colonel, and is credited with recognizing early on that the George W. Bush administration had an insurgency on its hands in Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the disbanding of the Iraqi army.

Harvey and McMaster were known to have clashed before. In May, Bloomberg reported that Harvey had come up with a list of so-called “Obama holdovers” at NSC who were suspected of leaking to the press. White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon and Trump urged McMaster to fire them, but he refused.

However, according to someone aware of the incident, Harvey’s list had nothing to do with leaking to the press. Instead, the targeted staff had written a memo on key issues in the counter-Islamic State campaign and sent it directly to McMaster. Harvey was upset that they had gone around him and straight to his boss.

Harvey was also known for being a hawk on Iran and had been pushing proposals to expand the U.S. military mission in Syria to go after Iran proxy forces more aggressively. Defense Secretary James Mattis had pushed back on these proposals.

In an interview with al-Monitor, Ken Pollack, a former CIA and NSC official, said Harvey was handpicked by Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Iraq and later CIA director, to devise the surge strategy for overcoming the Iraq insurgency and stabilizing Iraq.

“It was Harvey who first laid out for President George W. Bush at the White House in the winter of 2004 the real scale and nature of the Sunni insurgency at a time when the Bush administration wouldn’t use the word ‘insurgency,’ because it implied they were facing something much more serious than the ‘dead enders’ Vice President Dick Cheney was then publicly talking about,” CNN’s Peter Bergen reported.


This article was published jointly with Foreign Policy.

Image: Getty/Mark Wilson