If You Fear the Deep State, History Explains Why

Unaccountable National Security Council staffers manage America’s foreign policy. Past reforms only amplified their influence.

Oliver North
Oliver North in 1987 (Scott Applewhite / AP)

In July 1987, Oliver North was living proof of what could happen when obscure government staffers exercise power on their own. North, a Marine lieutenant colonel who’d been assigned to work on Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff, sat upright in his olive-green uniform before a joint congressional committee. As television cameras rolled, the staffer recounted his role in the scheme to sell weapons to Iran and funnel the proceeds to Contras battling a socialist government in Nicaragua.

On paper, North and others at the NSC were supposed to support the president’s policy-making process, but Reagan staffers had cooked up their own plans and then carried them out. Amid what became known as the Iran-Contra affair, North and the rest of the NSC looked to many like, in the words of one observer, “reckless cowboys, off on their own on a wild ride.” Today conspiracy theorists would have simply called them part of a “deep state”—shadowy, unelected officials controlling government even as presidents come and go.

Like just about everyone else in the United States, I watched North’s hearing. I was 8 years old. As rain ruined a family-vacation day that July, I sat in a hotel room with my mother and siblings, captivated by the testimony of a man whose deeds, I realize now, could have besmirched the NSC’s reputation for posterity. Yet when I began research for a book on the people and power of the NSC—a project that eventually included reviewing 10,000 archival documents and almost 100 interviews with policy makers from the Reagan administration and more—I was surprised how seldom Iran-Contra came up.

There is one Washington wise man to thank for that. Brent Scowcroft, an unassuming Utahn, retired Air Force lieutenant general, and former national security adviser, has done more than anyone to shape the NSC and the way Washington makes foreign policy today. Even before North testified, Scowcroft took steps to not only save the staff but empower it. As part of the special review board that investigated Iran-Contra, and then as President George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser, Scowcroft built an NSC far more powerful than the one North had served on, despite calls by some to eradicate the staff.

Thirty years later, the institution that Scowcroft empowered serves at the pleasure of Donald Trump. The 45th president has even taken to Twitter to thank NSC staffers for their service. Coming from a president who has sharply criticized other bureaucratic entities and complained aloud about the “deep state,” Trump’s tweet is ironic proof of the NSC’s staying power.

There’s no organized deep state in Washington today, but I can understand why Americans might worry about what unelected officials do when left to their own devices. The history of the NSC is a classic demonstration of how a few serving in government can amass enormous power in the name of national security when the public can’t see what they’re up to. Since previous attempts to curtail the NSC’s purview have done the opposite, one would be forgiven for wondering if any limit is even possible.

Unsurprisingly, Americans have taken again to thinking that those in government are off again on their own wild ride. A poll last year found that three-quarters of Americans believed that unelected government and military officials secretly control policy decisions in Washington. That finding should alarm those working on the NSC. Despite their immense power, staffers operate outside the public eye. They are not subject to Senate confirmation. They do not testify before Congress. They speak to the press and public only when it is in their—and the president’s—interests. To the outside world, they are all but anonymous—a failure of democratic oversight that Congress is long overdue to fix.

The staff on which North served was created as a political, legal, and bureaucratic afterthought. Up through World War II, Senate-confirmed secretaries of Cabinet and military departments advised the president on matters of foreign policy. After the war, Congress established a formal National Security Council to better coordinate foreign policy. At first, the council itself—which included such officials as the president, the vice president, the secretaries of state and defense, and more—got all the attention due to the novelty and importance of its charge. One headline billed members as “The Men Who Guard the Nation’s Security.” But in one line of law, Congress also created a secretarial staff to keep the council productive and push its paper.

From those humble, administrative beginnings, president after president empowered the staff. Harry Truman housed it in the Executive Office Building, next to the White House. Dwight Eisenhower created the position of national security adviser. Subsequent presidents put NSC staffers in charge of the interagency process through which information gathered from across the government is put before the president. In recent decades, hundreds of staff members have helped presidents with everything from the little questions (What is the name of a foreign leader’s spouse?) to the big challenges (Should the United States go to war?).

Even when presidents occasionally sought to reduce its power, the NSC grew right back. After Reagan came into office, he downgraded the national security adviser and NSC staff, hoping instead to empower Cabinet secretaries to run foreign policy. But with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz in screaming matches and the Cold War presenting daily challenges, frustrated NSC staffers tried to fill the gap and “risk doing something,” as one White House official said at the time.

Few came to embody that NSC more than North. The Marine officer was first assigned to the NSC in 1981 at the age of 38, and rose to become a deputy director working on terrorism. During North’s time on the staff, the United States began secret sales of weapons to Iran, ostensibly to secure the release of hostages captured in Lebanon. Only a couple of hostages were released during the whole scheme, but North had secretly taken an additional step: Though expressly forbidden by Congress and not approved by Reagan, North began diverting funds from the arms sales to fund the Nicaraguan Contras.

When news of the Iran-Contra affair finally broke, in late 1986, the scandal was serious and sexy enough—secret missions, illegal money transfers, and rogue staffers from an unknown and mysterious entity—to become all Washington could talk about. Even more, an attempted cover-up threatened the entire Reagan presidency. After first playing down the scheme, the president took responsibility for the operations in an Oval Office address in March 1987.

Although Reagan and then–Vice President Bush avoided legal culpability, several officials were indicted. North was convicted for his efforts to cover up the affair, though the conviction was later reversed. Still, Iran-Contra, and North’s hearing, introduced the nation to the NSC staff as a group of rogue warriors manipulating policy. Individual staffers took most of the blame, but many in Washington believed that the NSC itself had, as one official later wrote, “gone off the rails.”

In the end, the political and legal drama of Iran-Contra was far less consequential than the fight to fix the National Security Council itself. In late 1986, Reagan tapped John Tower, a former Republican senator from Texas, to lead a special panel to review what had gone wrong. Also on what became known as the Tower Commission were former Secretary of State Ed Muskie and—most consequentially—Brent Scowcroft.

Compared with Tower and Muskie, both of whom had served in elected office, Scowcroft was a quintessential behind-the-scenes player. Intense, balding, and rail-thin, he had excelled as an Air Force staff officer at the Pentagon, then as deputy to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger during Richard Nixon’s administration, and finally as a low-key and hardworking national security adviser to President Gerald Ford. In that job, as Ford’s chief of staff Dick Cheney told me, Scowcroft was “not interested in headlines for himself.”

Scowcroft recruited another low-profile insider, Stephen Hadley, a lawyer and former NSC staffer, to help on the commission. The two pored through NSC files from both the Reagan administration and previous presidencies, and they wrote much of what would become the board’s 550-page report. But more than simply exposing wrongdoing, Hadley later explained, Scowcroft was “keenly focused” on ensuring the White House’s national security adviser and NSC staff continued to hold the reins on national-security process and the policy it produced.

Amid calls to make the NSC and national security adviser answer to Congress, the commission avoided such a step and recommended no legal restrictions. Instead, the NSC was to be governed by unwritten rules—what a former White House official described as Washington “common law”—that, for instance, made verboten operations like those undertaken by North and others at the NSC. More important, the staff’s mission was redirected; staffers were to act as “honest brokers,” making sure all relevant voices were heard.

On November 23, 1988, George H. W. Bush—by then elected president—charged Scowcroft with putting this theory and his reforms into practice. At a pre-Thanksgiving press conference, Bush named Scowcroft national security adviser. The president-elect said three times that his old friend Scowcroft would serve as an “honest broker.”

Scowcroft recruited staffers from outside government, such as Richard Haass, a former congressional, Pentagon, and State Department aide with an Oxford doctorate then teaching at Harvard, and put them in the middle of a new interagency system of committees and meetings. When Cabinet-level officials or their deputies gathered for policy deliberation, either Scowcroft or his deputy, Bob Gates, chaired the sessions, and a staffer like Haass would take notes.

After Iran-Contra, such prominence caused alarm bells to go off in Washington within weeks of Bush’s inauguration. A front-page New York Times headline read, “Bush Backs Plan to Enhance Role of Security Staff.” But Scowcroft’s status and reputation smoothed concerns, and Congress gave the president’s appointee the leeway to run his own staff. In practice, the national security adviser kept the NSC staff under close watch, but not on a short leash. He encouraged staffers to develop new ideas, come to his office, and then “defend them and argue them.”

Advocating for those new ideas could prove a challenge for honest brokers. But Scowcroft and his team redefined the art of brokering as providing the president not only the views of all members of the interagency process but also their own.

Under Scowcroft’s leadership, Haass was in the room for most key discussions in the Gulf crisis, which began with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Initially Bush had told reporters, “We’re not discussing intervention.” The offhanded remark was the kind staffers regret: It suggested options had been taken off the table. In the days after, Scowcroft, Haass, and others wanted to find a way for Bush to appear more strident and buy some wiggle room for a more forceful response.

With Bush returning from Camp David one Sunday, an opportunity presented itself, and Scowcroft ordered Haass to be there to meet the president on his helicopter. When Marine One landed on the South Lawn, Bush waved Haass over. The president asked, “What’s going on?” Haass gave Bush a policy brief that he and another staffer had quickly composed and recommended a “very firm message” to the assembled press. Bush delivered a line of his own, telling the press,“This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”

All of Washington took notice of Bush’s ad-lib. One reporter concluded that the president had “all but committed himself to use military force against Iraq,” and even General Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was surprised to hear about a possible “new mission” in that way. The chairman blamed Haass, the staffer standing awkwardly next to Bush during the press availability, for the manner in which the mission was delivered. According to Haass, Powell made clear that he felt the NSC staffer “had made policy on the fly” and gotten Bush to “stake out a pretty tough position … without having run this through anything like a process.”

Powell was wrong about who wrote the line, but he was right to be worried about the power of the National Security Council. While Scowcroft held staffers back from Oliver North–style mischief, the former Tower Commission member gave Haass and others the opportunity to amplify their influence on the Gulf War and more. In the years since, unknown staffers have gained enough power—through their own ambition, new presidential requests, and abdication by Cabinet secretaries or their departments—to manage America’s relationship with the world and its wars.

Regardless of party, each succeeding national security adviser—including Trump’s latest appointee, John Bolton—has sought to follow Scowcroft’s example. The NSC’s incredible power over decisions, especially in the George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump administrations, demonstrates how right one Iran-Contra era prediction proved to be. Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, said Tower’s conclusions had “offered the NSC staff an opportunity to increase its authority.” Thanks to Scowcroft, the NSC became a powerful and opinionated institution at the heart of government with little legal foundation, oversight from Congress, or exposure to the press and the American public.

Such a development is remarkable on its own terms—all the more so because the power of unknown staffers is why the Tower Commission and Scowcroft’s reforms were established in the first place. Few offer more damning judgments than Gates, who after serving as Scowcroft’s deputy became CIA director and later defense secretary, and who wrote that the staff had become “an operational body with its own policy agenda.”

The result is a change in how the United States goes to war and how Washington works. In conflict after conflict, a more powerful NSC staff has fundamentally altered the American way of war. It is now far less patient for progress and averse to risk, and more dependent on Washington’s ever-changing definition of success. The power of the NSC has also transformed how Washington works and, more often, does not work. The result today is a government that trusts less, fights more, and makes decisions much more slowly.

Scowcroft could not have predicted that his NSC would serve a president like Trump, or that a character as worrisome as Michael Flynn, who served as Trump’s first national security adviser, would even briefly oversee the NSC. But Scowcroft and others should have foreseen that such an influential and anonymous staff would worry many in the United States.

For a generation, Congress has mostly looked the other way. Driven by partisan politics, deference to commanders in chief, and lack of interest in foreign-policy oversight, members of the House and Senate have chosen not to hem in the NSC. The closest Congress has come—a limit on the number of NSC staffers in the defense authorization bill signed into law in 2016—demonstrates how little it really wanted to do. The measure, promoted by Republicans as a way of reining in Obama’s NSC, was so toothless that it would not have required any significant changes to that staff.

In any case, the real risk is not the size of the NSC staff but the unaccountable power that it represents at a time when Americans are losing trust in government and worrying about a deep state. In response, Congress should exercise more scrutiny over who works there and what they’re up to. Prospective staffers could, like presidential nominees for senior appointments at the Pentagon and the Department of State, be required to respond to background questionnaires, disclose their financial interests, and even appear before Congress. The power of the NSC has increased to the point that anonymity no longer makes sense.

From my book research, and from my time in government, I’ve learned that Oliver North—the quintessential NSC staffer gone rogue—was not a true reflection of those who work on behalf of their nation. Year after year, in good times and wartimes, remarkable men and women have shown up in Washington with a dream to serve their country, not some secret cabal of unaccountable officials. Yet amid the whispers today, some in Washington have come to treat the “deep state” label as an inside joke or a badge of honor.

The government and national-security community need to take this concern far more seriously than Scowcroft did after Iran-Contra. To ignore Americans’ concerns about rogue staffers again would be a mistake. Ultimately, few of the national-security crises the NSC works on in the White House Situation Room have ever been as dangerous to the nation than the collapsing trust in its government.