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National Security Council Reloaded

President Obama is adding quite a bit to the portfolio of the National Security Council (NSC). The latest addition, announced August 24, is supervision of the new interagency task force for interrogating high-value detainees. The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) will operate from FBI headquarters but be supervised by the NSC. Such assignment of an “operational” role to the NSC has opened some eyes inside the Beltway, evoking memories of Iran-Contra and congressional fury.

But Obama has already expanded the NSC’s purview in two major reorganizations. In March he added much of the Cabinet to the NSC “Principals Group,” the baseline membership established in the National Security Act of 1947. To the vice president and secretaries of state and defense, Obama has added the attorney general and secretaries of energy, treasury, and homeland security, among others. In May he merged the Homeland Security Council (HSC), created by George W. Bush as a separate entity, with the NSC, essentially fusing the functions of these councils as well as their staff (although the homeland security adviser remains a separate appointee on a level with the national security adviser). The May reorganization also saw the creation of a new “Global Engagement Directorate” with the purpose of driving “comprehensive engagement policies that leverage diplomacy, communications, international development and assistance, and domestic engagement and outreach in pursuit of a host of national security objectives” (emphasis added).

Much think-tank commentary, like that of the Global Leadership Coalition (see last link), has applauded the trend of Obama’s reorganization efforts (see here and here, for example). The Project for National Security Reform (of which National Security Adviser James Jones and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair are both alumni) has long argued for an even more comprehensive reorganization of the executive branch to improve interagency processes. Advice such as that of former Joint Chiefs Chairman General Peter Pace is frequently invoked to make the case that reorganization will improve interagency cooperation to the benefit of national policy. The reorganizations undertaken by Obama have a strong whiff about them of this “good government” focus—even the creation of HIG, with its orchestrated interagency character and chain of command originating from the Executive Office of the President (EOP).

Congress may well have a different view, however. Someone may remind them on the Hill that the ACLU urged Congress little more than a year ago to investigate the National Security Council’s allegedly central role in authorizing torture. As National Journal’s Shane Harris points out, the NSC official with oversight of the HIG is John Brennan, whose early candidacy for Obama’s CIA director angered left-wing pundits because of Brennan’s association with enhanced interrogation techniques. Congress’s authority and oversight are murkier with EOP entities than with the executive departments, as demonstrated in instances from Iran-Contra to the humorously convoluted history of funding for the Homeland Security Council. Even exercising the power of the purse is a challenge for Congress with the EOP organization.

Civil libertarians and federalists can also justly be concerned about the implications of merging the HSC and NSC, and creating a Global Engagement Directorate chartered with both foreign and domestic “outreach.” Blurring lines between domestic- and foreign-agency charters creates troubling opportunities to undermine the authority of state and local governments, as writer Paul Stockton outlines in this policy article in the Washington Quarterly, which takes an avowedly contrarian view of the impetus to “streamline.” Today a number of security issues must cross the functional lines between foreign- and domestic-agency purviews, but the question whether domestic mechanisms, voices, and expectations should impede certain directions in national-security policy ought to be decided politically, with congressional involvement, and not by fiat of the executive branch.

Long-time national-security observers have been skeptical about whether Obama’s reorganizations are sufficient to change much about how national-security business is done. We can hope, from certain standpoints, that this view proves valid. But a rapidly expanding National Security Council, with a new charter to merge foreign and domestic “engagement and outreach,” as well as to oversee terrorist interrogations, is beginning to look like a special prosecution waiting to happen. Congress should interest itself in this matter sooner rather than later.



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