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Politics & Government

National Security Council Turmoil Highlights Consequences Of Its Growth


As the Trump White House looks for a new national security adviser, here are two items about the organization that person will run, the National Security Council. First, a document in the Nixon Library about President Richard Nixon's National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. This was in the late 1960s and early '70s. Dr. Kissinger, it says, increased the size of the NSC staff from 12 to 34. And second, a Washington Post story from 2015 said of the NSC staff that while its exact size was unknown - and this is a quote - "many outside estimates put it at 400, about twice the size it was at the end of the George W. Bush administration."

The National Security Council advises the president in the most pressing foreign policy decisions he faces. But why has the NSC staff grown so much over the decades? We're going to ask Richard Haass, who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and also the author most recently of "A World In Disarray." Welcome to the program once again.

RICHARD HAASS: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Richard, you worked on the National Security Council in charge of Near East and South Asian affairs in the George H. W. Bush administration. That was about midway between Nixon and Obama's. How many staffers were there then?

HAASS: I think there were about 40 professional staffers and some support staff. We had a few things to deal with. We had the end of the Cold War. We had Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. So we weren't sitting around eating bonbons.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) And we should explain that the actual members of the council are the president, the vice president and the secretaries of state and defense and a few key advisers. Why has the staff gotten so big?

HAASS: It's a good question because it's probably now tenfold what it was then. You could say a few of the extra people are because they've added functions like Homeland Security and the National Economic Council. But most of the additions I think have simply come from the desire of presidents to control things, a certain mistrust of the agencies and departments, and a desire to run things out of the White House. And that's - more than anything else, that's what accounts for the bloat of the NSA.

SIEGEL: Bloat is not a neutral word, so I assume you don't think it's a positive development that it's grown so much.

HAASS: (Laughter) To be clear, no. What happens when the NSC gets large? It gets very, very specific on operations, or it starts doing everything itself, and it stops deferring to the agencies and departments who, by the way, have a lot of experience and are often in the field.

SIEGEL: You returned to government to run policy planning at the State Department for Secretary Colin Powell. Did you feel you were at an agency that was regarded as secondary to the National Security Council staff over at - near the White House?

HAASS: Absolutely, and not just to the National Security Council staff, but also to the staff of the vice president.

SIEGEL: To Vice President Cheney, yeah, yeah.

HAASS: Exactly. The vice president has his own mini National Security Council staff. And what all this does is reinforces the centrality of the White House, and it weakens the role of the various spokes and departments in determining the trajectory of U.S. policy.

SIEGEL: With this president who seems to have a untraditional sphere of foreign policy advisers - Jared Kushner is involved in Middle East policy, Steve Bannon is going to sit in on National Security Council meetings I gather - would that diminish the influence of the all be it large staff of the National Security Council if there are that many more close advisers to the president involved in foreign policy?

HAASS: Well, you raise an interesting point. You mentioned Steve Bannon. You mentioned Jared Kushner. The other day we saw this young man Stephen Miller, I think, plus now we've already had a transition at the top of the NSC. So one's seeing in some ways a slightly weak and demoralized NSC amidst a very large, crowded White House and a still yet unfilled set of departments around the government. I would think the bigger question is not the relationship necessarily between the NSC and everyone else, but just we don't yet have an administration. We don't have a Trump administration, Robert, when it comes to foreign and defense policy.

SIEGEL: Can you imagine someone in Congress pushing the idea that the National Security Council and the advisers should indeed become people confirmed by the Senate and overseen by, say, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?

HAASS: Not only could I imagine it, bills have been introduced to precisely that effect. And that, again, is one of the risks that if the NSC gets too powerful, the president will lose what is in some ways its great advantage, the idea that he has this private source of advice that is not responsible to Congress. So the danger of getting too big and too active is you may forfeit one of your great advantages.

SIEGEL: Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks for talking with us once again.

HAASS: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And Richard Haass' new book is called "A World In Disarray: American Foreign Policy And The Crisis Of The Old Order." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.