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The NSC Staff: New Choices for a New Administration

By R.D. Hooker, Jr. | Strategic Monograph | November 15, 2016

The NSC StaffEarly in every new administration, the President and his national security team are inundated with studies offering advice on how to organize for national security. Many propose sweeping changes in the size, structure, and mission of the National Security Council (NSC) staff, the fulcrum of national security decisionmaking. However attractive superficially, organizational tinkering is unlikely to drive better performance. This paper argues that structure and process are less important than leadership and the quality of NSC staffing. No duty rises higher than the President’s call to defend the Constitution and the people and territory it nourishes. That duty will be tested early and often. An NSC staff that is up to the task will play an enormous role in keeping the United States safe.

What Does the NSC Staff Do? 

The NSC staff has four primary roles: to advise the President in the field of national security affairs, to manage and coordinate the interagency process in formulating national security policy, to broadly monitor policy execution, and to staff the President for national security meetings, trips, and events. Many assume that the NSC staff does, or should do, much more. But it is first and foremost the President’s personal national security staff.2 Other tasks—such as generating independent, whole of government national security policies and strategies, or conducting detailed, daily implementation oversight— would require a much larger staff and inevitably lead to ponderous, centralized, and ultimately dysfunctional behaviors that would prevent responsive support to the President. Long-range “strategic” planning is surely essential, but more properly belongs to the interagency as a whole, vetted by the Deputies and Principals Committees and approved by the full National Security Council. 

The NSC’s role as a process manager is not synonymous with policy advocacy. While the National Security Advisor (NSA) may and often will recommend a given course of action, a more critical function is ensuring that all viewpoints are heard and objectively assessed, and that important issues are framed for decision. When allowed to become an operational entity (as occurred during the Iran-Contra affair) or to effectively preempt the Departments of State and Defense (as in the Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter eras), the NSC staff has historically stumbled.3 Properly focused and chartered, the NSC staff can empower and facilitate an interagency process that is otherwise cumbersome. 

Over time, the NSC staff has become immersed in policy detail and in responding to urgent or crisis events, fed largely by a 24-hour news cycle. This in turn creates pressure for staff growth. The result is a diminished ability to conduct high-level, far-seeing policy work at the appropriate strategic level. A smaller NSC staff by definition is unable to immerse itself in detailed policy oversight and micromanagement, a compelling argument for reductions in future administrations. 

In this regard, the NSC staff is not a line entity, statutorily empowered to give orders in its own name. And significantly, it should not be an interagency planning headquarters. It may forward Presidential guidance and direction through formal channels or an approved interagency body such as the Principals Committee. It cannot direct or demand. However, the NSC staff and its head, the National Security Advisor, enjoy two distinct advantages: access to the President, and the ability to set the policy agenda in national security affairs. Used judiciously, these represent real power.

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