The Time Has Come
Congress Seeks to Leash the NSC

A senior Republican Congressman is seeking to amend the National Defense Authorization Act, currently up for passage, to rein in the National Security Council. Reuters reports:

Representative Mac Thornberry said his measure would increase oversight of the NSC, capping it at 100 people or allowing it to be larger but subjecting the National Security adviser to confirmation by the Senate.

Thornberry estimated the NSC currently has 400 staff.

“All of President (Barack) Obama’s former Defense Secretaries have complained about micromanagement by the NSC,” Thornberry, chairman of the powerful House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “I have personally heard from troops on the frontlines who have received intimidating calls from junior White House staffers.

“Now we hear reports of NSC staffers running misinformation campaigns targeted at Congress and the press,” Thornberry said. He was referring to a recent New York Times profile in which a deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, discussed ways the administration had communicated about last year’s Iran nuclear deal to the Washington press corps.

We have been writing in print and online about the need for reform to the NSC since 2007—which is to say, under both Republican and Democratic Administrations. Whatever the immediate impulse for this may be (and it pretty clearly has to do with Ben Rhodes and, only slightly less immediately, Susan Rice), this is an idea whose time has come. The NSC has long since outgrown its original function as a small team of security advisors to the President, and is increasingly being used as a parallel executive.

To understand what has happened here, we turn to the inimitable Cyril Northcote Parkinson (of the eponymous Parkinson’s Law), English essayist, sometime bureaucrat, and satirist:

When first examined under the microscope, the cabinet council usually appears— to comitologists, historians, and even to the people who appoint cabinets— to consist ideally of five. With that number the plant is viable, allowing for two members to be absent or sick at any one time. Five members are easy to collect and, when collected, can act with competence, secrecy, and speed. Of these original members four may well be versed, respectively, in finance, foreign policy, defense, and law. The fifth, who has failed to master any of these subjects, usually becomes the chairman or prime minister.

Whatever the apparent convenience might be of restricting the membership to five, however, we discover by observation that the total number soon rises […] Other members come to be admitted, some with a claim to special knowledge but more because of their nuisance value when excluded. Their opposition can be silenced only by implicating them in every decision that is made.[..]

[Soon, t]he whole committee suffers an abrupt organic or chemical change. The nature of this change is easy to trace and comprehend. In the first place, the five members who matter will have taken to meeting beforehand. With decisions already reached, little remains for the nominal executive to do. And, as a consequence of this, all resistance to the committee’s expansion comes to an end. More members will not waste more time; for the whole meeting is, in any case, a waste of time. So the pressure of outside groups is temporarily satisfied by the admission of their representatives, and decades may elapse before they realize how illusory their gain has been.[..]

But this does not matter. For the cabinet has already ceased to be a real cabinet, and has been succeeded in its old functions by some other body.

(From Parkinson’s Law, 1957.)

And in modern America, under the last few Presidencies and particularly this one, that other body has been the NSC. Given that, it is entirely within Congress’ rights and duties to either trim it back, or demand that the parallel cabinet be treated as such, complete with confirmation hearings for its leaders.

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