Republicans Try to Rein in the National Security Council

As the NSC swells to more than 400 staffers, a congressional proposal offers the White House a choice: Cut it down to size, or subject it to more oversight.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

When you think of a “council,” you most likely think of a group of people sitting around a conference table or a committee room, debating issues and making decisions. You probably don’t imagine a 400-person bureaucracy.

Yet that’s what the National Security Council has become. An entity originally created in 1947 to coordinate foreign policy and advise the president has quadrupled in size over the last two decades and doubled under President Obama. The ballooning bureaucracy of the NSC has alarmed senior officials outside the White House for years, and especially in the Pentagon, where former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, among others, have complained that NSC staffers have centralized power and micromanaged the Cabinet.

The White House says it agrees that NSC has gotten too big, having announced nearly a year ago that it was “reversing the trend of growth across successive administrations.” But it’s not moving fast enough for Republicans in Congress, who are advancing legislation that would either cap the NSC staff at 100 or subject the post of national security adviser to confirmation by the Senate. The House adopted multiple amendments aimed at reining in the NSC as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which passed on Thursday afternoon.

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.

How seriously is the White House taking the push in Congress? Mark Stroh, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that under Rice’s direction, the NSC staff had already shrunk by 12 percent in the last year-and-a-half. Her review has also led to fewer interagency meetings and streamlined internal procedures. “More importantly, however, these measures will help to ensure the NSC staff is best positioned to assist the president in carrying out his ambitious foreign-policy and national-security agenda during his remaining time in office,” Stroh said.

He would not directly address the GOP proposals, but the White House has in the past noted that one reason the NSC staff grew so much under President Obama was that it was merged with a separate Homeland Security Council created by President Bush after 9/11. And as administration officials are quick to point out, the Republican bill wouldn’t actually constrain Obama so much as his successor. “The desire of some Republicans to try to limit the ability of the next president to make foreign-policy decisions,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, mused to reporters on Tuesday, “may reflect their lack of confidence in their prospects for the next presidential election.”