The National Security Council (NSC) serves the President’s inner circle of advisers who consult on matters of national security. The White House defines national security as the “defense of the United States, protection of the constitutional system of government, the advancement of United States interests around the globe” … and “America’s opportunity to prosper in the world economy.” The NSC is led by a National Security Advisor (NSA) who, over the years, has come to rival, and in some administrations, exceed the authority of the Secretary of State on foreign policy issues. The NSA and NSC have been at the center of many political controversies, including the decision by the administration of President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003.
The National Security Act of 1947 (pdf) is one of the most important pieces of legislation in post-World War II American politics. The act established the foundation for what would later be termed the “national security state,” characterized by a shift in national political power from Congress to the Presidency. The 1947 NSA created the National Security Council (NSC) to advise the President on all foreign policy and military matters. The legislation also established the post of Secretary of Defense who, along with the Secretary of State, helped direct the work and goals of the NSC, and it created a National Military Establishment, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Resources Board.
In time, the NSC became a means for the President to better control and manage competing executive branch departments involved in national security affairs. President Harry Truman’s NSC was dominated by the State Department, while President Dwight Eisenhower’s preference for military staff oriented the council toward the Pentagon. The NSC staff under Eisenhower coordinated an elaborate structure for monitoring the implementation of policies—a structure that was later dismantled by President John F. Kennedy.
JFK initially looked to the Secretary of State’s office to take charge of foreign policy-making, but eventually turned to the NSC and his National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, to take the lead when it became apparent that the State Department lacked the power to keep other departments in line. Kennedy’s freewheeling style tended to erase the distinction between policymaking and operations that President Eisenhower’s regimented staff system so carefully observed.
President Lyndon Johnson shared Kennedy’s affinity for relying on the National Security Advisor. Bundy continued in this role until 1966, when he was replaced by Walt Rostow. President Johnson also consulted regularly with his “Tuesday Lunch Group,” an inner circle of aides, and eventually turned to his Secretary of State Dean Rusk to supervise and coordinate interdepartmental activities that involved foreign and military affairs.
Under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, the NSC was dominated by Henry Kissinger, who at one point held both the National Security Advisor and Secretary of State posts. Kissinger expanded the NSC staff and concentrated it on acquiring analytical information from the various departments that would allow him to provide the President with the best possible range of options for making decisions.
This system worked perfectly for President Nixon, who preferred detailed written reports rather than interpersonal meetings. Kissinger concentrated on a handful of major issues and allowed some foreign matters to devolve to the State Department, while weapons and international financial questions were dealt with by the Pentagon and the Treasury Department.
Under President Jimmy Carter, the National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, became a principal source of foreign affairs ideas, and the NSC staff was recruited and managed with that in view. The State Department provided institutional memory and served as operations coordinator. This dynamic ultimately produced tension between the NSC and the State Department.
A collegial approach to government decision-making was emphasized in the Reagan administration. The National Security Advisor was downgraded, and the White House Chief of Staff exercised more power over foreign policy and military matters. But the collegiality among powerful department heads was not successfully maintained and conflicts became public. The NSC staff tended to emerge as a separate, contending party, led by the largest number of National Security Advisors of any administration. During Reagan’s eight years in office, he had six men serve as the NSA: Richard Allen, William P. Clark, Robert C. McFarlane, John M. Poindexter, Frank C. Carlucci, and Colin L. Powell. Poindexter and McFarlane became the most well-known publicly, thanks to their roles in the Iran-Contra Scandal involving the diversion of funds from arms to sale to Iran that were used to help support the Contra rebels seeking the overthrow of the socialist government of Nicaragua. Their notoriety was eclipsed, however, by an NSC subordinate—Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, who functioned as the point person in the White House for the covert operation.
President George H. W. Bush brought his own foreign policy experience to his leadership of the National Security Council, having served previously as the ambassador to the United Nations and the Director of Central Intelligence. Bush reorganized the NSC to include a Principals Committee, Deputies Committee, and eight Policy Coordinating Committees. The NSC played key roles during such major developments as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany, the invasion of Panama and the Gulf War.
The Clinton administration continued to emphasize a collegial approach within the NSC on national security matters. The NSC membership was expanded to include the Secretary of the Treasury, the U.S. Representative to the United Nations, the newly created Assistant to the President for Economic Policy (who was also head of a newly created National Economic Council, or NEC, parallel to the NSC), the President’s Chief of Staff, and the National Security Advisor.
Under President George W. Bush, the NSC—led by Condoleezza Rice until 2005—played key roles in the Global War on Terrorism campaign. This included the effort to round up intelligence that was used to justify the US invasion of Iraq in 2003—intel that ultimately proved inaccurate in regards to Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. The NSC also underwent structural changes during the Bush administration, including the addition of a “war czar” who reports directly to the President (see Controversies).
In the Obama administration, the NSC was first led by James L. Jones, Jr., a former Marine Corps general, and then in 2010 by Thomas E. Donilon, a former State Department chief of staff in the Clinton administration. In 2009, President Barack Obama approved Presidential Study Directive-1 (pdf), which merged the NSC staff and staff of the Homeland Security Council (HSC) into one National Security Staff to function under the National Security Advisor. HSC, which was created as a statutory body through the Homeland Security Act of 2002, advises and assists the President with all aspects of homeland security and serves as the mechanism for coordination of all homeland security-related activities among executive departments and agencies of the federal government. In addition to this integrated staff, both councils were made to operate within a single budget. Also, new directorates and positions were established to deal with WMD terrorism, cyber security, information sharing, and border security.
History of the National Security Council, 1947-1997
Truman Administration, 1947-1953
Eisenhower Administration, 1953-1961
Kennedy Administration, 1961-1963
Johnson Administration, 1963-1969
Nixon Administration, 1969-1974
Ford Administration, 1974-1977
Carter Administration, 1977-1981
Reagan Administration, 1981-1989
Bush Administration, 1989-1992
Clinton Administration, 1993-1997
The National Security Council (NSC) is the President’s principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters with his senior national security advisors and cabinet officials. The function of the NSC is to advise and assist the President on national security and foreign policies, and it serves as the President’s principal arm for coordinating these policies among various government agencies.
The NSC is chaired by the President. Its regular attendees are the Vice President (who serves as chair when the President is absent), the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Advisor (NSA). The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the military adviser to the NSC and the Director of National Intelligence is the intelligence adviser. The White House Chief of Staff, Counsel to the President and the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy are invited to attend any NSC meeting. The Attorney General and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget are invited to attend meetings pertaining to their responsibilities. The heads of other executive departments and agencies, as well as other senior officials, are invited to attend meetings of the NSC when appropriate.
The NSA is responsible for determining the agenda of NSC meetings, ensuring that necessary papers are prepared and that minutes of meetings and Presidential decisions are recorded. When international economic issues are on the agenda of the NSC, the NSA works with the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy to perform all of the aforementioned duties.
Less than a month after assuming office in 2001, by President George W. Bush issued a National Security Presidential Directive that reorganized several committees.
Originally established by the first President Bush, the NSC Principals Committee (NSC/PC) serves as the senior interagency forum for the council. The NSC/PC is composed of the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, the White House Chief of Staff and the NSA, who chairs the NSC/PC. The White House Chief of Staff and National Security Advisor to the Vice President also attend all meetings. The Director of Central Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Attorney General and the director of the Office of Management and Budget attend as needed. Sometimes the White House Counsel is consulted regarding the agenda of NSC/PC meetings. When international economic issues are on the agenda of the NSC/PC, the committee’s regular attendees include the Secretary of Commerce, the United States Trade Representative, the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy (who chairs for agenda items pertaining to international economics) and sometimes the Secretary of Agriculture.
Another Bush I creation, the NSC Deputies Committee (NSC/DC) serves as the senior sub-cabinet interagency forum. The NSC/DC reviews the work of the NSC interagency groups and ensures that issues being brought before the NSC/PC or the NSC have been properly analyzed and prepared for decision. The NSC/DC consists of the Deputy Secretary of State or Under Secretary of the Treasury or Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs, the Deputy Secretary of Defense or Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the Deputy Attorney General, the Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Deputy Chief of Staff to the President for Policy, the Chief of Staff and National Security Advisor to the Vice President, the Deputy Assistant to the President for International Economic Affairs and the Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor, who chairs NSC/DC meetings. When international economic issues are on the agenda, the NSC/DC’s regular membership will include the Deputy Secretary of Commerce, a Deputy United States Trade Representative and occasionally the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. The NSC/DC is chaired by the Deputy Assistant to the President for International Economic Affairs for agenda items that principally pertain to international economics. Other senior officials are invited when appropriate.
The NSC Policy Coordination Committees (NSC/PCCs) manages the development and implementation of national security policies by multiple federal agencies. The NSC/PCCs function as the day-to-day body for interagency coordination of national security policy. They provide policy analysis for consideration by the more senior committees of the NSC system and ensure timely responses to decisions made by the President. Each NSC/PCC includes representatives from executive departments, offices and agencies represented in the NSC/DC.
Six NSC/PCCs are structured around world regions: Europe and Eurasia, Western Hemisphere, East Asia, South Asia, Near East and North Africa, and Africa. Each of these NSC/PCCs is chaired by an official of undersecretary or assistant secretary rank chosen by the Secretary of State. There are also 11 NSC/PCCs based on functional topics (chair indicated in parentheses):
The Trade Policy Review Group (TPRG) functions as an interagency coordinator of trade policy. Issues considered within the TPRG flow through the NSC and/or NEC process, as appropriate.
In March 2005, NSA Stephen Hadley announced a reorganization (pdf) of the NSC hierarchal structure. Five Deputy National Security Advisors positions were created responsible for: Iraq and Afghanistan; strategic communication and global outreach; international economics; global democracy strategy; and combating terrorism.
In 2009, President Barack Obama created the Cybersecurity Office within the National Security Staff in order to address cyber threats to the nation’s security. This action was taken for the purpose of implementing the recommendations of the Cyber Policy Review (pdf), a report developed as a result of Obama’s order for an examination of the federal government’s efforts to defend U.S. information and communications infrastructure.
In July 2011, the NSC released its report, Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime: Addressing Converging Threats to National Security (pdf), a study to aid in the defense of the U.S. against the illicit activities of international criminal networks.
The National Security Council: An Organizational Assessment (Congressional Research
From the Web Site of the National Security Council
In 2009, the National Security Council’s (NSC) budget was combined with that of the HSC, and includes the budget for the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB), which provides the President with expert advice concerning the quality and adequacy of intelligence collection and activities.
The FY 2013 Congressional Budget Submission for the Executive Office of the President (pdf) offers the following estimate of expenditures for the NSC/HSC/PIAB budget for that year:
Personnel Compensation & Benefits $11,308,000
Includes salaries, terminal leave, premium pay, assignments
under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, and all employee
Travel & Transportation of Persons $1,073,000
Includes official travel, such as per diem, hotel and
transportation, auto rental, and local transportation.
Supplies and Materials $216,000
Includes general supplies, information technology (IT) supplies,
newspaper and magazine subscriptions, government publications.
Communication, Utilities & Misc. Charges $210,000
Includes data, voice, and wireless communications; utilities,
postage, and miscellaneous rental charges.
Other Contractual Services $131,000
Includes advisory and assistance services, purchases of goods
and services, operations and maintenance of facilities, research and
development contracts, medical care, operations and maintenance
of equipment, or subsistence and support of persons.
Includes IT hardware and software, customized software
programming, printers and network devices, office furniture and
equipment (photocopiers, fax machines, telephones).
Printing and Reproduction $50,000
Transportation of Things $4,000
Includes commercial express delivery, freight and other shipping.
Total FY 2013 Budget Request $13,048,000
National Security Council
The National Security Council (NSC) in 2010 became embroiled in the controversy that surrounded the killing a year later of a U.S.-born cleric in Yemen.
Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, was placed on a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “kill or capture” list after the NSC concluded he was threat to national security. NSC officials also participated in a closed-door debate within the Obama administration over whether it was legal for the government to target al-Awlaki.
The cleric’s death in a 2011 drone strike sparked a public debate as well over the government’s ability to execute a citizen with no judicial process while relying only on secret intelligence. Civil libertarians and Muslim-American advocates said al-Awlaki’s killing was the same as summary execution without the due process of law guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the Constitution.
Vicki Divoll, a former CIA lawyer who teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy, pointed out that under U.S. law, the government had to get a warrant in order to obtain al-Awlaki’s cell phone records. But it needed no such court order to kill him. “That makes no sense,” Divoll told The New York Times.
Controversy Over CIA Authorization to Kill U.S. Citizen (by Scott Shane, New York Times)
Judging a Long, Deadly Reach (by Scott Shane, New York Times)
Obama Admin Debates Releasing Awlaki Memo (by Elise Labott and Carol Cratty, CNN)
Panetta: Decision to Kill Americans Suspected of Terrorism Is Obama's (by Adam Serwer, Mother Jones)
Obama Moves To Conceal Drone Death Figures (by Steve Watson, Infowars.com)
Hiring of “War Czar” Prompts Calls to Fire National Security Advisor
When Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute testified before Congress as part of his confirmation hearings to become the new “war czar,” he informed lawmakers that he would be reporting directly to President Bush on all issues involving the Iraq War and military operations in Afghanistan. He also remarked that National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley would deal with the president “on matters outside of Iraq [and] Afghanistan.” The testimony stunned leading Democrats and at least one Republican. They appeared taken aback by the extent of the shake-up in Bush’s inner circle of advisers—especially the diminished role Hadley would play.
“Afghanistan, Iraq and, related to that, Iran are the most critical foreign policy problems we face, and the national security advisor of the United States has taken his hands off that and given it to you?” asked Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), a former Army officer who described himself as a longtime friend of Lute’s. “Then he [Hadley] should be fired. Because frankly, if he’s not capable of being the individual responsible for those duties and they pass it on to someone else, then why is he there?”
A Shift in Leadership, and Possibly in War (by Peter Spiegel, Los Angeles Times)
“War Czar” Joins NSC
Following his reelection in 2004, President George W. Bush decided to shake up his National Security Council team. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice moved on to become Secretary of State, while Rice’s top deputy, Stephen Hadley, took over as NSA. But Hadley did not assume responsibility for overseeing the nation’s top military priorities—Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, President Bush decided to create the position of assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor, or “war czar,” as some began to call it, who would report directly to him on military operations in the two countries.
The only problem was that no one wanted the job. Administration officials approached no less than five four-star generals about the position and all of them turned it down. That included retired Marine Gen. John J. “Jack” Sheehan, a former top NATO commander, who told The Washington Post: “The very fundamental issue is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going.”
Sheehan said he believed that Vice President Dick Cheney and his hawkish allies remained more powerful within the administration than pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq. “So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, ‘No, thanks,’” he said.
Eventually, President Bush found a taker—Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the top operations officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lute, though, was not supportive of the troop surge ordered by the Bush administration in 2007, leaving some to wonder why he was selected for the job.
Bush Picks General to Coordinate War Policy (by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times)
3 Generals Spurn the Position of War 'Czar' (by Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post)
Bush Taps Skeptic of Buildup as 'War Czar' (by Peter Baker and Robin Wright, Washington Post)
NSA Condoleezza Rice
During President George W. Bush’s first term, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was often at the center of the administration’s most controversial moments. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, national security officials were some of the most scrutinized by media and lawmakers, who wanted to know how the federal government allowed such an attack to happen. Rice’s actions in particular were examined, especially after it was revealed that two months earlier, in July 2001, CIA Director George Tenet had briefed Rice in an emergency meeting at the White House about the potential threat of an al Qaeda attack.
When asked about the meeting in 2006, Rice claimed that she did not recall the specific meeting and that she had met repeatedly with Tenet that summer about terrorist threats. She insisted it was “incomprehensible” that she had ignored terrorist threats two months before 9/11.
In March 2004, Rice refused to testify before the 9/11 Commission. Under pressure, President Bush agreed to allow Rice to testify, making her the first sitting National Security Advisor to testify on matters of policy. In April 2007, Rice rejected, on grounds of executive privilege, a House subpoena regarding the false prewar claim that Iraq sought yellowcake uranium from Niger.
In 2003, Rice became one of the most vocal members of the Bush administration as it made its case for going to war against Iraq. After Iraqi officials declared before the United Nations that it had no weapons of mass destruction in December 2002, Rice wrote an editorial published in The New York Times, “Why We Know Iraq Is Lying.”
Records Show Tenet Briefed Rice on Al Qaeda Threat (by Philip Shenon and Mark Mazzetti, New York Times)
Condoleezza Rice's memoir reveals clashes over Iraq (by Stephanie Condon, CBS News)
Iran-Contra Figure Tapped for NSC
Shortly after taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush selected a controversial figure from the Reagan years—Elliott Abrams—to serve on the National Security Council. Abrams, who pled guilty in 1991 to withholding information from Congress during its investigation of the scandal, was selected as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Near East and North African Affairs. At the start of President Bush’s second term, Abrams was promoted to Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy. Abrams was considered by some observers as a good fit for the White House, given his credentials as a “neo-con” like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Pentagon deputy Paul Wolfowitz.
Elliott Abrams: It's Back! (by David Corn, The Nation)
Bush Taps Iran-Contra Figure Elliot Abrams to Promote Democracy (Democracy Now!)
“War Czar” Calls for Draft
Shortly after assuming his new position as “war czar,” Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute remarked that the country should consider bringing back the military draft, which the federal government has not operated since the closing days of the Vietnam War.
Lute said frequent tours for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan had stressed the all-volunteer force and made it worth considering a return to a military draft. “I think it makes sense to certainly consider it,” Lute told National Public Radio. “And I can tell you, this has always been an option on the table. But ultimately, this is a policy matter between meeting the demands for the nation’s security by one means or another.”
Lute also admitted that restoring the draft would be a “major policy shift” and that the President had made it clear he doesn’t support the idea.
Iraq War Czar: Consider a Draft (Associated Press)
James L. Jones, Jr. January 20, 2009 – October 8, 2010
Stephen Hadley January 26, 2005 – January 20, 2009
Condoleezza Rice January 22, 2001 - January 25, 2005
Samuel R. Berger March 14, 1997 - January 20, 2001
W. Anthony Lake January 20, 1993 - March 14, 1997
Brent Scowcroft January 20, 1989 - January 20, 1993
Colin L. Powell November 23, 1987 - January 20, 1989
Frank C. Carlucci December 2, 1986 - November 23, 1987
John M. Poindexter December 4, 1985 - November 25, 1986
Robert C. McFarlane October 17, 1983 - December 4, 1985
William P. Clark January 4, 1982 - October 17, 1983
Richard V. Allen January 21, 1981 - January 4, 1982
Zbigniew Brzezinski January 20, 1977 - January 21, 1981
Brent Scowcroft November 3, 1975 - January 20, 1977
Henry A. Kissinger December 2, 1968 - November 3, 1975 (served concurrently as
Secretary of State from September 21, 1973)
Walt W. Rostow April 1, 1966 - December 2, 1968
McGeorge Bundy January 20, 1961 - February 28, 1966
Gordon Gray June 24, 1958 - January 13, 1961
Robert Cutler January 7, 1957 - June 24, 1958
Dillon Anderson April 2, 1955 - September 1, 1956
Robert Cutler March 23, 1953 - April 2, 1955