Given the breadth of news in circulation these days, an article on the Trump administration and its structuring of the National Security Council probably seems a bit dull, and more than a little esoteric. The article below offers commentary on the approach the new administration appears to be taking, at least out of the gate.
I’ve researched and written a good deal about the NSC’s operations since its founding in 1947, in two books and a new one upcoming this year. From what I can see so far the new administration’s approach concerns me a great deal. To understand why a bit of context and history is needed.
The national security act of 1947 established the National Security Council (NSC). Its members serve as primary policy advisors the President in the areas of foreign policy and national security issues. As you would imagine, different Presidents have used the council to a great or lesser extent.
Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy used it extensively; others such as Nixon and George W. Bush used it more sparingly. Which begins to highlight one of the concerns – the whole point of the council, as exemplified by Truman’s use of it, was to get the administrations most geopolitically experienced people in a room along with its best military and intelligence advisors and have open and frequently heated discussions of major policy issues.
None of the three earliest presidents I mentioned would have thought about making decisions without the best advice they could get from the intelligence community or the military. They all had strong personalities and made their own decisions – but only after listening to everybody.
Sometimes the intelligence advice brought to the NSC was not the best, sometimes it was flat wrong, but it was always on the table. The presidents who used the NSC least were those that were not quite so open to contrarian views or perhaps sensitive to being able to manage that sort of sometimes testy give and take that could develop if all parties were treated equally. Truman loved it, JFK loved it, Eisenhower not quite so much and Nixon not at all.
If you look behind the scenes, you find that in some instances that was because one or two key advisors had a president’s ear on these sorts of subjects and didn’t want to share it, or to be opposed in their views. That really stands out in the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations; to some extent under Carter as well.
Given certain decisions and agendas on Vietnam, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Iraq – perhaps a truly open discussion among equals at the NSC level could have helped avoid some mistakes, perhaps not. But the President has to make it “equals”, if an advisor (like Henry Kissinger) is clearly set at a level above the rest, the process failed, and will fail.
There are issues beyond who has the president’s ear and how open the decision making process is, although those are probably of the most concern. For example beyond being a forum for discussion and brainstorming, the NSC is designated to serve as the central point for tasking and communicating with the nation’s military and intelligence groups.
The Secretary of Defense sits as a member of the NSC, while the military services provide information on military capabilities, issues and intelligence through the Secretary or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – or designated JCS representatives. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had been established with its own multi-service Joint Staff and a Joint Intelligence Committee.
Currently the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) is charged with advising the NSC on matters relating to intelligence and national security. The DNI is also authorized to make recommendations and coordinate the activities (functions and missions) of the various groups and agencies involved in national intelligence.
The CIA as well as many other agencies operate under direction of the DNI. Given the breadth and size of the national intelligence community, the DCI is a focal point for bringing the correct intelligence (including briefing officers) into the NSC deliberations. In terms of military advice, the Secretary of Defense is the primary source and is a member of the NSC; the SecDef can call upon the Joint Chiefs and their staff or the heads of the individual services for information or briefing officers.
Anyone who tries to give orders without understanding the system – or tries to go around it – is bound to run into problems. The system is there to help refine and focus the orders, to resolve issues before they are given and then to make sure things happen and monitor them in real time. National security is tough enough when everyone is involved; it fails horribly when they are not – we saw that on 9/11.
In order to make all this work effectively, the NSC also sets the priorities for intelligence tasking and the DNI and SecDef are responsible for assigning and communicating those tasks and priorities. Theoretically it’s a two way street, with open dialog among the NSC members and lots of actual facts being tossed around the table – that provides some type of balance and prevents presidential advisors from strictly running their own agendas with the President.
There will always be competing intelligence assessments and facts; one of the most disastrous practices in more recent years is for Presidential advisors to bring in their own “intelligence”, which has come from special interest groups or “non-governmental organizations” and which is not vetted in the same fashion as that which normally goes though the filtering process in the intelligence community. The Iraq war provides us with a very recent example of how special interest intelligence can carry the day if the playing field is not balanced (in stark terms, if the President trusts an advisor more than the intelligence community professionals as a whole – who themselves will often disagree brutally with each other).
So, read the article I linked and see if you think there is a reason for concern, if not let me know so I can sleep more soundly…