The Project for National Security Reform (PNSR), a blue-ribbon, congressionally-chartered panel, concluded in 2008 that "The legacy structures and processes of a national security system that is now more than 60 years old no longer help American leaders to formulate coherent national strategy." Because of the American government's institutional ossification, "The national security of the United States of America is fundamentally at risk," (PNSR 2008, i). PNSR's dire warnings echo a chorus of voices that have been swelling for over a decade, calling for a fundamental reengineering of the United States' national security apparatus (Drezner 2009, 3-4). As proof of the need for change, advocates of reform point to the terrorist attacks of 2001, the intelligence failure surrounding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the botched planning for postwar Iraq, ongoing difficulties in Afghanistan, and fears that the government's war powers, allegedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, have grown beyond oversight and accountability.
In one sense, PNSR and its advocates are behind the times. Congress and the executive branch have already undertaken substantial reform over the past decade--establishing the Transportation Security Administration in 2001, the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, the National Counterterrorism Center in 2003, the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization in 2004, the FBI's National Security Branch in 2005, and the Office of the of National Intelligence the same year. These moves, among others, represent the largest overhaul of the defense and foreign policy agencies in a generation.
But the reforms of the past decade have been piecemeal, haphazard, and patchy, focused on individual agencies rather than systemic reform; critics are right that more reform is still needed. In particular, the United States' national security establishment lacks an integrated strategic planning capability. Disparate organizations--such as the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, the Joint Staffs J5, United States Agency for International Development's (USAID's) Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning, and the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy--carry out strategic planning for their respective organizations with minimal coordination between them. That is because the most crucial piece of the national security establishment, the one designed to knit it together and coordinate all its parts, has gone completely untouched by the reforms of the past decade: the National Security Council (NSC) and the interagency system it oversees. The NSC and its subordinate committees and supporting staff are supposed to integrate and coordinate interagency efforts--but no regular mechanism for integrating strategic planning has existed in the NSC system since 1961.
Ironically, the best way to reform the NSC for the twenty-first century is to revive some of the oldest ideas about how it was supposed to operate. The national security advisor should reestablish the NSC Planning Board--an organization that existed in various forms from 1950 to 1961. The early NSC system, widely noted for its methodical approach, attention to detail, and emphasis on planning, contained several elements that could address some of the most glaring weaknesses of the contemporary system. American policy makers could do worse than to take cues from one of the most experienced foreign policy presidents in American history and adapt (not slavishly copy) the system that laid the groundwork for America's successful Cold War strategy.
The Scowcroft NSC System
The NSC's core purposes are to advise the president and foster interagency cooperation. According to the National Security Act of 1947, the NSC exists to "advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and the other departments and agencies of the Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security." The NSC is the apex of the American government's foreign, defense, and intelligence establishment.
The NSC system is comprised of the NSC itself, a series of subordinate committees, and the NSC staff. The nomenclature has often been confusing to different authors, who occasionally confuse members of subordinate committees with regular NSC staffers or who refer to the NSC staff as "the NSC." Christopher Schoemaker rightly notes (1991, 21) that "it is popular to refer to the 'NSC' when what is meant is the NSC Staff. This is a common but misleading shorthand."
The NSC proper is the only component of the system that has remained relatively unchanged for 65 years. The NSC itself has always been, at its core, a meeting of the president, vice-president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense (others, such as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the secretary of the treasury, or the attorney general, have been added or subtracted by different administrations). The NSC is advised by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence (formerly the director of central intelligence), and chaired by the assistant to the president for national security affairs (conventionally called the national security advisor). The NSC has endured because it is a sensible improvement over the uncoordinated and sometimes competitive policy-making characteristic, for example, of Franklin Roosevelt's administration.
But the NSC does not operate in a vacuum. It is supported by a constellation of subordinate committees and a permanent staff in the White House who are supposed to manage the interagency process, prepare policy papers for the NSC's consideration, and coordinate the implementation of policy decisions. The committee and staff structure have been redesigned and reengineered by successive presidential administrations until a sweeping reform by Brent Scowcroft during his second tour as national security advisor in January 1989, which has been sustained, so far, by all his successors. (1) It is the committee and staff structure that is in need of reform.
In the Scowcroft system, the NSC committees include a Principals Committee (PC), the "senior interagency forum for consideration of policy issues affecting national security," according to the Obama administration's Presidential Decision Directive 1 (PDD-1), establishing the interagency system. The PC is simply a meeting of the NSC without the president, convened to settle issues that do not require presidential involvement or to clarify disagreements and options for the president's attention. Below the PC is the Deputies Committee (DC), which is supposedly a meeting of the deputy secretary of state, deputy secretary of defense, etc. The DC plays multiple roles: it "shall review and monitor the work of the NSC interagency process," oversee "policy implementation," and "ensure that issues being brought before the NSC/PC or the NSC have been properly analyzed and prepared for decision."
There are a series of third-tier committees, called Interagency Working Groups (IWG) under the Clinton administration, Policy Coordinating Committees (PCC) under the George W. Bush administration, and Interagency Policy Committees (IPC) under the Obama administration. "IPCs shall be the main day-to-day fora for interagency coordination of national security policy," according to PPD-1. They are responsible for providing policy analysis to the DC, responding to presidential decisions, and coordinating the implementation of policy. Issues are filtered up through the committees for staff work--to vet issues, conduct research, explore and flesh out policy options, and ensure policy papers are ready for higher-level consideration.
The membership of the PC and DC are relatively fixed from issue to issue, and they have a global writ, while there may be a dozen or more IPCs, each with a narrowly defined set of issues to allow for participation by deputy assistant secretaries and junior desk officers who specialize on single issues. The PC and DC are chaired by the national security advisor and deputy national security advisor, respectively, while the IPCs are chaired by the relevant member of the NSC staff. (The IPCs were chaired by State Department personnel under George H. W. Bush and by different agencies depending on subject matter under Bill Clinton, while NSC staff were designated the executive secretaries of the IPCs.) Every committee is comprised of personnel who, except for NSC staff, are representatives of another department or agency and who have full-time responsibilities there. They are physically located at their home agencies and departments. The PC (or NSC) and DC convene typically once or more per week in the White House Situation Room, located in the basement of the West Wing, while any agency (often the State Department) can host a meeting of an IPC. The DC meets most often. The NSC and PC will alternate, depending on whether presidential involvement is necessary.
The NSC staff is comprised of personnel who work full time on NSC business and are physically located in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, directly adjacent to the West Wing of the White House. Their duties have never been formally codified in statute, executive order, or presidential decision directive, a source of considerable ambiguity in the interagency process. Over time, their duties have included staffing the president and the national security advisor for their meetings, trips, and phone calls; doing routine administrative tasks to support the NSC, PC, and DC meetings; coordinating and integrating policy papers; supervising the policy process and chairing interagency meetings; adjudicating disputes or differences among agencies; coordinating crisis management; and, more controversially, formulating and advocating...