The Council for National Policy (CNP) is a secretive right-wing nationalist group that was formed in the early 1980s to counter the purported dominance of "liberal" groups like the Council on Foreign Policy. Many CNP members helped spearhead the emergence of the modern conservative movement (sometimes referred to as the "New Right"). Although it rarely receives public attention, the group remains an important element of U.S. right-wing activism and is regularly courted by conservative politicians, religious leaders, and activists. The invitation-only group sponsors closed conferences and seminars for "national leaders in the fields of business, government, religion and academia to explore national policy alternatives."
CNP claims on its website that it does not "lobby Congress, support candidates, or issue public policy statements on controversial issues." Rather, CNP aims to "educate" the American public by providing "an online journal of speaker presentations" called "Policy Counsel" that includes contributions from "the best and brightest minds on economics, defense and foreign policy, and social issues." However, CNP Action, Inc., CNP's sister organization, avowedly "promotes issues or specific pieces of legislation through regular publications and standing committee workshops."
The group lists three core issue areas: limited government, traditional values, and strong national defense. Regarding defense, CNP states, "We believe that this great experiment called America, a nation founded on the premise that 'all men are created equal,' is worth defending."
Recent "Policy Counsels" posted to its website include 2011 speeches by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Lieutenant General William Boykin, a controversial former leader of the Army's elite Delta Force notorious for promoting the use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques while serving as a deputy to Stephen Cambone in the George W. Bush Pentagon. Rumsfeld's speech, titled "Known and Unkown"—the same title as his 2011 autobiography—was a harangue about the dangers of "hollowing out" the defense budget and the need to wage a long war against terrorism. He said: "You know we are not going to win this problem or deal with this problem of terrorism successfully with bullets. We are going to have to be willing to engage in the battle of ideas. To do that, think back, we understood World War I, World War II, they started and they ended. But the Cold War was quite different. It went on for decades and it was a competition of ideas—freedom versus communism—well, that is what we are in for. What we are doing now is much more like that than it is World War I or World War II. And we are going to have to screw up our courage and develop better skills at identifying our enemy—and our enemies are radical Islamists, let there be no doubt—and thinking about how to talk about it, what to do about it, and engaging our government, our private sector, and our allies to begin battling the ideas that are out there that are so foreign to us and so damaging to our country and to free people."
The contributions to the "Policy Counsel" section of the CNP website come from speeches made during CNP's three annual conferences. Describing these events, the New York Times reported in 2004: "Three times a year for 23 years, a little-known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country have met behind closed doors at undisclosed locations for a confidential conference, the Council for National Policy, to strategize about how to turn the country to the right." Added the Times, "'The media should not know when or where we meet or who takes part in our programs, before or after a meeting,' a list of rules obtained by the New York Times advises the attendees. The membership list is 'strictly confidential.' Guests may attend 'only with the unanimous approval of the executive committee.' In e-mail messages to one another, members are instructed not to refer to the organization by name, to protect against leaks."
According to tax filings, CNP took in nearly $2 million in revenue in 2010, the lion's share of which it spent on its conferences and salaries for its two full-time employees, executive director Robert Reccord and finance director Jennifer Rutledge.
Despite its claims about not issuing policy statements or lobbying, CNP appears to wage considerable influence on elected officials. A sign of its influential role is the effort high profile politicians put into wooing the group. For example, during the 2008 presidential campaign, several Republican Party candidates addressed CNP, including Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). CNP told reporters wanting to attend McCain's speech in March 2008 that they would be given only limited access. A CNP spokesperson, who spoke "anonymously because the rules of the council forbid officials or members to speak by name in public," told the right-wing Washington Times, "We agreed the press could sit in a separate room and listen to the speech and the questions and answers."
A McCain campaign advisor lauded the CNP, saying, "This is the most distinguished collection of conservative leaders and donors, and [the senator] was anxious to appear as part of his ongoing effort to consolidate support for his candidacy within the conservative movement." However, McCain may not have won over many during his March 2008 remarks to CNP members, despite touching on his commitment to many common conservative themes such as lowering taxes, appointing "strict interpretationist" judges, banning gay marriage, and staying in Iraq. Richard Viguerie—Moral Majority cofounder, founding CNP member, and current CNP board member—said about McCain's response to a question about religion ("Would you please take a couple minutes and explain to us about your faith in God?") that, "[McCain] blew that question off by telling us about the faith of his jailer [in Vietnam]. It was very obvious to those three or four hundred conservative leaders there. … The vast, vast majority of them were either sitting on the sidelines or unenthusiastic about his impending nomination and he didn't move a single person."
More recently, during the 2012 presidential election campaign, a CNP member and former leader Foster Friess was a major funder of the "super PAC" supporting the candidacy of Rick Santorum. Friess, a billionaire investor and entrepreneur, caused a firestorm of controversy during the campaign when, during an interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell discussing Santorum's view on contraception, he said: "Back in my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn't that costly." Asked about Friess's comment, Santourm said: "It was a stupid joke."
Although most of its members are not elected officials, critics of the group argue that CNP's members are the real driving force of the Republican Party but do not wish to advertise their influence. Said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, before the 2004 CNP conference, ''The real crux of this is that these are the genuine leaders of the Republican Party, but they certainly aren't going to be visible on television next week. … But they are very much on the minds of George W. Bush and Karl Rove every week of the year, because these are the real powers in the party.''
Views like this have spurred derision from CNP members. Steve Baldwin, CNP executive director, once said, "We control everything in the world." Commented Marc Ambinder of ABC News, "[Baldwin was] only half-kidding. Half-kidding, because the council doesn't really control the world. … But also half-serious because the council has deservedly attained the reputation for conceiving and promoting the ideas of many who in fact do want to control everything in the world."
Iraq and the Bush Administration
Describing a spring 2002 CNP conference to ABC News, one CNP member said, "We'll probably discuss some of the hot issues that are relevant today. The Middle East. We'll have a number of speakers from different perspectives. We're not of all one like mind when it comes to what's going on there. ... Worldwide terrorism. Campaign finance reform. Generally, we kind of mirror what's going on in society. We pride ourselves on being relevant and timely, so that members want to come to our meetings." Despite this declaration of divergence of opinion on the Middle East, the meeting was summarized later by a conservative writer who "reported a complete uniformity of judgment—at a meeting attended by Bush administration officials when the Bush administration would still pretend for several months to try diplomacy—that Saddam needed to be deposed with military force." Ten months later, the United States invaded Iraq.
Among those invited to speak at the 2002 event were two core neoconservatives, Frank Gaffney and James Woolsey, as well as the influential right-wing figure Pat Buchanan, an outspoken opponent of the neoconservatives. (Past speakers have included David Horowitz, Steve Forbes, William Kristol, Ed Meese, Rush Limbaugh, John Ashcroft, and many others.)
CNP's founding members were influential figures from the conservative religious, political, and business communities. Among those who attended the group's inaugural meeting in May 1981 were Richard Viguerie, a direct-mail entrepreneur and leading figure of the New Right; Howard Phillips, then head of the Conservative Caucus; and Paul Weyrich, then head of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress. Viguerie, Phillips, and Weyrich had two years earlier formed Moral Majority, the goal of which was "to politicize and unify the frustrated and fragmented conservative, fundamentalist religious community and mold it into a political voting block."
Other founding CNP members included Tim LaHaye, a leader of the Christian Right who coauthored the famous Left Behind novels about the Second Coming; Morton C. Blackwell and Robert Billings, both advisors in the Ronald Reagan administration; Edwin Feulner of the Heritage Foundation; Joseph Coors, founder of the Coors beer empire and an important early funder of the conservative movement; Nellie Gray of the antiabortion group March for Life; Herbert and Nelson Bunker Hunt of the Hunt Energy Company; Ed McAteer, president of the Religious Roundtable; Bill Saracino of Gun Owners of American; and conservative activist and writer Phyllis Schlafly.
CNP kept several of its original members over the years, as the New York Times reported in 2004. "The membership list this year was a who's who of evangelical Protestant conservatives and their allies, including Dr. [James] Dobson, Mr. Weyrich, Holland H. Coors of the beer dynasty; Wayne LaPierre of the National Riffle Association, Richard A. Viguerie of American Target Advertising, Mark Mix of the National Right to Work Committee and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform."
Other notable members and supporters in recent years have included Jeffrey Bell, Jack Kemp, Richard Allen, and Tommy Thompson. The family of Erik Prince, founder of the controversial private security company Blackwater Worldwide, has also been closely associated with the council. Erik's father Edgar Prince was a longtime board member before his death in 1995; Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, Erik's mother, served as CNP president for several years and was a board member as of 2006; and Erik Prince's (now-defunct) Freiheit Foundation donated money to the group.