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Backstage Politics

National Security Council explained

The National Security Council plays a critical role in US security. However, not many people know this institution and how it manages the country’s safety. That’s what we’re going to address here.




Today, I want to speak to you about the National Security Council. Usually, this institution is not in the spotlight, but it develops a consistent activity every single day. And to do so, it doesn’t need any particular crisis. That’s because it is part of the national security complex. Indeed, it helps coordinate this bureaucracy made of different departments, agencies, and thousands of officials at different levels.

As I commented on another occasion, national security is a sensitive matter that is under the control of a few people. It has to do with the national interest, namely, the survival of the State.

The US national security works in similar terms, with an array of different structures commanded by those who are in charge of coordinating security activities. And on this occasion, I want to discuss the function of this council, how it works and who part of it is.


Historical background of the birth of the National Security Council


The National Security Council, or NSC, is the President’s principal forum for considering national security, military, and foreign policy matters with his senior national security advisors and cabinet officials. It’s also part of the Executive Office of the President. Its inception was under the Truman administration, and its function has been to advise and assist the President on policies related to the mentioned fields. Before moving on, it’s convenient to take a look at the circumstances in which it was created.

It’s fundamental to understand the historical context in which this institution appeared because it’s related to the formation of the national security complex. The effect of WWII was decisive in this regard. As I discussed on another occasion, the international sphere contributed to creating a large bureaucratic structure around the military. And this structure gathered other agencies and departments, reflecting a power shift inside the government, and in the whole nation.

We shouldn’t dismiss the influence of the international realm on domestic politics because it’s quite evident in the case of the US. Security needs drove changes in the internal domain and led to a new distribution of power. The old balance between society and government broke. And in the ruling elite, there was a transfer of power from the political directorate to the military-industrial complex. I spoke about this sort of process and the role of world affairs in the domestic sphere.

So, as I said, the war was critical in this issue. It transformed the country and society. The security needs changed drastically because of the new international position of the US in the world. The military clustered the whole nation to support the war effort and beat their enemies. The entire economy, with its enormous resources, came under the control of the military. By the end of the war, it was clear generals had much power than ever before, and they didn’t surrender it. Rather than disbanding all armed forces as on other occasions, they only sent home a part of them. Besides, it was evident, due to the new international situation, and especially to the internal transformations, the need to change legislation.

In some way, it was an attempt, a successful attempt I dare say, to formalize in legal terms the new situation. Despite doubts on their constitutionality, the government adopted new measures aimed to reinforce and centralize national security institutions. American leaders, especially those who supported President Truman, justified these legal arrangements. To do so, they resorted to foreign threats. For instance, Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota dismissed objections to the new arrangements by arguing that to prevent these changes would straitjacket the President. In his view, that would make the President incapable of dealing with the Soviet Union. He wasn’t alone on this, other Senators, such as Paul Douglas of Illinois, insisted that the US military power should support democracy everywhere. At this moment, we all are familiar with this discourse. Therefore, the US had to adopt a disposition to permanent military preparedness.

Those who opposed these measures warned the perils they involved for the nation’s institutions. That is the case of the Senator Edward V. Robertson of Wyoming, who considered the military consolidations could lead to the formation of an embryonic general staff similar to Germany’s Wehrmacht. A new national intelligence agency, he said, could grow into an American Gestapo. Other political figures set out their view in blunt terms, such as Senator William Langer of North Dakota. He said, literally, the “military leaders had an insatiable appetite for more money, more men, and more power, whatever the cost to democracy.”

For some political leaders, the peacetime military conscription was similar to some practices in totalitarian regimes. They had great concern over the possibility of a total militarization of the country and the creation of a permanent military caste. Republican Senators, such as John Bricker and Robert Taft of Ohio, and Homer Capehart of Indiana, advocated for capping the size of active US military forces. They considered there was going on a drift from congressional responsibility to administrative policymaking. Joseph W. Martin of Massachusetts, leader of the House of Representatives, claimed that the country was slowly losing its freedoms as it was moving toward the garrison State.

Truman himself shared some of these concerns, at least to an extent. Nevertheless, he considered the new national security complex necessary to control the military, as well as to ensure the US security in front of the Soviet threat. Despite that, the Hoover Commission had warned in 1949 that the Joint Chiefs was acting as a law unto themselves and that centralized civilian control scarcely existed in certain military departments. In this context, Truman believed that his new national security architecture was the best to meet security threats. And at the same time, it would safeguard the American institutions that the newly empowered military and intelligence organizations were expected to protect.

All I have discussed so far was the historical context that led to the approval of the National Security Act of 1947. It gave the legal endorsement to the broad network of agencies, departments, and officials who constituted the national security complex. Indeed, it confirmed the already existed power structures in the security realm and legitimized this network of influential circles at the top of these structures.

The public justification American leaders set out to establish this new bureaucracy was the need to contain the Soviet Union. The beginning of the Cold War helped sell this idea to Americans. They declared the intent was to ensure coordination and unity among the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and other instruments of national security policy, such as the Central Intelligence Agency.

Anyways, by 1949 this Act was amended to set a clear separation of functions between agencies. Then, the US national security architecture was settled. Now, the point here is to see what the National Council does in this structure. How important is it?


Members and functions of the National Security Council


First of all, we have to mention the NSC is an advisory organ but much influential due to those who belong to it. So, it’s time to see who the members of the NSC are.

The President chairs the NSC. Its regular statutory attendees are the Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Energy, and the Secretary of the Treasury. Besides these officials, there is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is a military advisor and a regular attendee. I have to mention the Director of National Intelligence as an intelligence advisor and also a regular attendee. Another attendant is the Director of National Drug Control Policy as the Drug Policy Advisor. The rest of the regular attendees and additional participants, but non-statutory members of the NSC, are the National Security Advisor, the Deputy National Security Advisor, the Homeland Security Advisor, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Director of the CIA, and other important members of the federal government.

However, I have to say the NSC has evolved, and its members have fluctuated in number and background. Anyways, it has an advisory role in the theory. Its duty is to advise the President in foreign policy, national security, and military when policy decisions are going to be made. Despite that, there is something more important that goes deeper, beyond the formal surface of formalities settled in the Act. I refer to the organizational background of this council and its members and participants.

Since Truman’s administration on, the size of the budgets and workforce of the national security complex has grown considerably. This growth brought the need for coherence and design at the organizational level. Nevertheless, this coherence and design came from the bureaucracy itself. Nowadays, Presidents can appoint only between 3,000 and 4,000 individuals. For instance, only 247 officials of the 668,000 civilian employees in the Department of Defense and related agencies in 2004 were political appointees. Therefore, several hundred policymakers come from the national security bureaucracy to oversee and direct it. They include the top professional staff members of the National Security Council.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the number of participants in the NSC was a dozen, or even less. Indeed, during the Kennedy administration, there were only five members. However, the development of the national security structure led to the transformation of this institution accordingly to the new organizational needs. As recently as the 1990s, the NSC professional staff numbered about 50. By 2014 the NSC numbered over 350 members. In this regard, I have to say that policymakers that make up the NSC are careerists as well as “in-and-outers.” There are academics, analysts from think tanks, military officers, and other officials seconded from executive agencies.

These several hundred officials constitute America’s national security network. They sit at the pinnacle of what Jack Goldsmith called “Washington’s tight-knit national security culture.” They have neither face nor name for the American people. These officials draw little overt attention but wield immense, unnoticed power. They spent their professional lives writing what they didn’t sign, and finally, they end up signing what they didn’t write. They take part in big decisions, and they do it by shaping the decision-making process. They are the result of a bureaucratic need for coordination at the top level of the intergovernmental agencies. They know how the security machinery works, and their bosses at the political level, those elected or political appointee officials, depend on them.

The NSC is functional in these organizational terms. Their members are part of this extensive network of officials. They don’t need to tell the President what he has to decide. They just arrange the stage by providing a limited range of options. In this way, they shape decisions. And we see how the military, intelligence agencies, diplomats, law enforcement officers, all together, constitute an impenetrable and opaque network that operates in secrecy. No President can escape from that because this network activity wraps him when big decisions are necessary.

The NSC doesn’t command the national security, at least according to the law. However, their members don’t need that because technically, they are necessary to develop the national security guidelines, and that makes them powerful. Besides, we see those resources these agencies concentrate. No doubt, they are influential because of their position in organizational terms. They don’t need to show that power because everybody at the top level of the federal government knows who they are and what they’re capable of.


Question of the day


Question of the day! Do you think the US national security should need popular control? If you think so, how would you implement it? Post your opinion in the comments section below, and I’ll check it out.

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Gilbert, Felix (ed.), The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze

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Poggi, Gianfranco, The Development of the Modern State

Anderson, M. S., The Origins of the Modern European State System 1494-1618

Spruyt, Hendrik, The Sovereign State and its Competitors

Le Goff, Jacques, La Baja Edad Media

Giddens, Anthony, The Nation-State and violence

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