To a certain extent, the Republican push is a partisan effort inspired, most recently, by the New York Times profile of Ben Rhodes, which depicted Obama’s deputy national security adviser as a puppet-master of the Washington press corps. As GOP lawmakers see it, Rhodes was able to sell reporters—and by extension, the public—on a misguided nuclear deal with Iran in part because the NSC is shielded from effective oversight and accountability. “If there was any kind —any kind!—of accountability or transparency over those folks who were on the National Security Council, perhaps that never would have happened,” Representative Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican, told me. “We don’t know because it’s just not there.” Walorski, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, was able to pass an amendment that would subject the NSC to public-disclosure requests under the Freedom of Information Act if the post of national security adviser becomes confirmable by the Senate.
On a practical level, requiring the NSC to participate in FOIA might change little, since government officials already have wide latitude to withhold or black out information that is classified or sensitive for national-security reasons. But Walorski points out that until a Supreme Court ruling in the 1990s, the NSC had been subject to freedom-of-information requests. “They were not created to be this large, almost 400-member bureaucracy,” she said. “I’m in the camp of keeping it where it was intended to be, or all the rules change.”
Yet although the timing of the GOP effort to restrain the NSC might be about seizing on the fallout from the Rhodes profile, it spotlights a real tension in the government. The expansion of the National Security Council over the last two administrations tracks with a centralization of power and decision-making in the White House, where officials are undeniably less accountable to Congress and the public. In late 2012, when Republicans protested the potential nomination of Susan Rice as secretary of state, Obama named her his national security adviser instead, ensuring that she could remain by his side without allowing the Senate to filibuster her nomination. As Politico’s Glenn Thrush has written, Obama has sidelined his Cabinet as much as—if not more than—any previous president, preferring the message-discipline that the tighter circle of authority inside the White House can offer.
In the realm of national security, a larger NSC is partly a reflection of the post-9/11 threat environment and the fact that the U.S. has been fighting two wars for more than a decade. Still, the complaints go beyond just how large the NSC has become. In his memoir, Gates wrote that NSC staffers would make direct calls to four-star generals in the field—a breach of the chain of command that would have been “a firing offense” in previous administrations.