How the National Security Council Works

President Barack Obama (second from left), Vice President Joe Biden (left), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team receive an update on the assassination of Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

In May 2011, Americans were surprised by a sudden television appearance by President Barack Obama. He revealed that after a daring raid by U.S. forces into Pakistan, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was dead. "Justice has been done," Obama assured the nation [source: Baker, et al.].

While the Navy SEAL team that cornered and killed bin Laden became national heroes, another unheralded group played a crucial role in the successful mission. For months leading up to the raid, staffers from the National Security Council (NSC) had organized more than two dozen meetings involving multiple government agencies. At those gatherings, officials analyzed emerging intelligence, studied possible operational courses of action and tried to figure out what the international consequences would be if the mission succeeded — or if it failed [source: Rasmussen].


On April 28, 2011, Obama had convened an NSC meeting in the Situation Room, a section of the White House West Wing equipped with giant TV screens and communications gear to relay the latest intelligence information from all over the world. In attendance were the NSC's principals, including National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others. Obama went around the table, asking each adviser for an opinion on the raid, and weighed that information. The next day, he gave the order to proceed [source: Allison].

The bin Laden raid was the sort of high-stakes moment for which the NSC was created by Congress back in 1947 [source: U.S. Dept. of State]. When a president has to take action, it's crucial to have well-researched policy options on the table, and experts and advisers who can help him pick the best one. Once the decision has been made, it's vital to have someone coordinating the government's various departments and agencies to make sure they work together to achieve it.

At least that's how it's supposed to work. While the NSC is a permanent part of the executive branch, each president has considerable leeway to organize the advisory group, and shape it to suit his own leadership style and personality. And some commanders-in-chief do a better job of using the NSC than others. In this article, we'll look at the history of NSC and how it has functioned over the decades.


Why Was the National Security Council Created?

President Lyndon Johnson (fourth from right) meets with the National Security Council and other top government officials, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the White House, prior to a scheduled nationwide television report on the Vietnam War in 1968. Bettman/Getty Images

For much of America's history, presidents got by without having an National Security Council. Abraham Lincoln, for example, would ask his secretary of state, William Seward, and other cabinet members for advice — but often disregarded them and came up with his own solutions [source: Monaghan]. When Seward sent a memo on why Lincoln should rely upon him to design and pursue foreign policy, Lincoln brushed him off: "I remark that if this must be done, I must do it" [source: Goodwin].

By the 1900s, the world and the government had become so complex that presidents started developing an interagency policy-creating process. After World War II, Congress — which found fault with President Franklin Roosevelt's management style, and wanted to prevent another Pearl Harbor-style attack— decided that a permanent organization was needed to make sure intelligence information got to the Oval Office, and that the president got advice from experts on important decisions [source: U.S. Dept. of State].


In 1947, Congress passed the National Security Act, creating a council to, in the words of the act, "advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign and military policies relating to the national security" and to ensure cooperation among departments and agencies. Just seven officials, including the president, were permanent members of the council, though others could attend the meetings [source: Best].

Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, initially didn't have much use for the NSC, and rarely attended its meetings. But after the Korean War erupted in 1950, Truman quickly saw the value of bringing experts and agency heads together to hammer out policy. President Dwight Eisenhower, who was accustomed to the military's staff system, made the NSC even more elaborate, creating special boards to coordinate and implement policy and adding a top assistant to run it all, the position that's now known as national security adviser.

In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy converted a bowling alley in the West Wing basement into the Situation Room, a meeting space equipped with communications gear enabling it to receive the latest information from military posts, intelligence agencies and embassies around the clock. It became the spot where the president and his advisers would gather at moments when the nation's security was on the line [source: U.S. Dept. of State].


The Evolution of the National Security Council

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer holds up paperwork highlighting and comparing language about the NSC from the Trump administration and previous administrations during the daily press briefing, Jan. 30, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the years since the National Security Council was created, presidents have reorganized it to suit their own style of decision-making. President Lyndon Johnson set up a regular Tuesday working lunch that brought together the secretaries of state and defense, the CIA director and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Under President Richard Nixon, the NSC again expanded and focused on gathering analysis from departments for National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, who then synthesized it into written recommendations for Nixon. In many ways, the national security adviser became more important than Secretary of State William Rogers, who sometimes wasn't even consulted about foreign policy decisions.

President Gerald Ford pretty much kept Nixon's system, while under President Jimmy Carter, the national security adviser turned into more of a public spokesman for the president's ideas, rather than a behind-the-scenes manager.


Under President Ronald Reagan, the NSC morphed from an advisory group into an organization that actually carried out secret operations to support foreign and national security policy — an overreach that led to the Iran-Contra scandal, which we'll talk about later. Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, went back to the NSC's original function. He created a flow chart full of committees whose goals were to come to agreements and coordinate policy across the Executive Branch. It worked smoothly enough that the next three Presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — stuck to the senior Bush's approach [source: Whittaker, et al.].

However, by the Obama administration, the NSC had ballooned to about 400 staffers, four times the size it was in the Clinton administration. Half of them were on loan from various departments and agencies [source: DeYoung]. The sheer numbers led to internal complaints about the difficulty of making any decisions, with months, sometimes years of repetitive meetings.

President Donald Trump came into office in January 2017 promising to shake things up in Washington, and that included the NSC. About a week after taking office, he issued a memorandum that radically reorganized the council. Trump made White House political strategist Steve Bannon — a figure known for his controversial far-right views — a full-fledged member of the NSC.

At the same time, he excluded the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence, two officials included by law in the NSC, from the list of those who usually would attend NSC meetings, decreeing instead that they "shall attend [only] where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed" [sources: Jaffe, White House].

Although there was an uproar in the press on this last point, some say it was overblown. Under previous presidents the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the director of national intelligence sometimes skipped meetings if the issue being discussed didn't pertain to them [source: Qiu].


Who's a Member of the National Security Council?

As you may have figured out already, the National Security Council has multiple layers. At the top, there's the principals committee, composed of some of the national security leaders in the U.S. government. That includes the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the director of national intelligence, and the secretaries of state, defense and energy, whose participation in the NSC is specified by law. Other nonstatutory members usually include the president's national security adviser, the White House chief of staff, the attorney general and various other cabinet members [source: Qiu].

But meetings are only a part of what the organization does. Other members are experts on regions and countries, as well as specialists in topics ranging from cyber security to public health. Their job is to make sure the top level of the NSC has the right information to make decisions.


When a president makes state calls to foreign leaders, for example, it's customary for an NSC senior staffer who's an expert on that country to brief the president beforehand, giving him a prediction of what the other head of state might say and outlining key U.S. policy objectives. Then, during the call, the staffer generally will be close by, listening in on the call and scribbling notes to the president or answering questions that arise [source: Palmeri].

On at least one occasion in U.S. history, though, the NSC has gone beyond its job of giving advice and coordinating policy, and actually gotten involved in clandestine operations. As we'll discuss in the next section, that didn't turn out well.


Controversies and the National Security Council

Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North leaves his home early on Dec. 18, 1986, in suburban McLean, Virginia. North, the fired National Security Council member, was under fire for his reported role in the Iran arms-Contra aid controversy.  Bettmann/Getty Images

After President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he decided to rely mostly upon Cabinet members and their department staffs for advice, and issued a directive putting them — rather than National Security Council staffers — at the helm of various regional groups and sub-committees within the NSC. He also downgraded the role of the national security adviser, assigning him to report to the White House chief of staff and blocking direct access to the president. While those moves were aimed at reducing internal conflict, a Congressional Research Service report later concluded that giving cabinet members control "tended to reduce the possibility that all sides of a given issue would be laid before the full NSC or the President" [source: Best].

Instead of providing information, giving advice and fostering cooperation among agencies, the NSC's staff instead became more involved in running the Reagan Administration's covert actions — including some that were being run outside of the traditional intelligence apparatus and the law as well. After Congress passed the 1984 Boland Amendment, a law that cut off U.S. government money for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, NSC staff became part of a secret effort — headed by NSC staffer Lt. Col. Oliver North — to raise funds from other countries and private contributors. According to a Congressional investigation report, that effort eventually developed into "the Enterprise," a private organization that "had its own airplanes, pilots, airfield, operatives, ship, secure communications devices and secret Swiss bank accounts."


Some of the money raised with the help of NSC staffers even was funneled to efforts in the U.S. to influence public opinion and pressure Congress members to support restoring aid to the Contras [source: Iran-Contra Report].

The Enterprise also became involved in secret deals in 1985 and 1986 in which Israel sold missiles to Iran on behalf of the Reagan Administration in an effort to obtain the release of hostages held in Lebanon. Some $18 million of the $30 million in proceeds from those sales were then diverted to support the Contras [source: Iran-Contra Report,].

When the operation was uncovered, it blew up into a massive public scandal, complete with televised Congressional hearings and an independent counsel investigation. North was convicted in federal court of three charges related to the scandal, though his convictions were later overturned [source: Ostrow].


Why Do Presidents Take Action Without the NSC's Advice?

While the National Security Council was created by Congress to make sure that presidents get the full benefit of advisers' wisdom, they sometimes find its bureaucracy too confining. Instead of working with the full policy machinery, 'presidents sometimes turn to a few key NSC staffers to move ahead on an issue. Under President Obama, the planning and analysis of the bin Laden raid, for example, was carried out in such secrecy that some NSC principals reportedly weren't even told about it until the decision was nearly at hand [source: Allison].

And when Obama wanted to thaw relations with Cuba, he reportedly tasked two senior NSC officials — Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes and then-Latin American director Ricardo Zuninga — to conduct secret talks with the Castro regime. Even Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly didn't learn about the talks until they were fairly far along [source: DeYoung].


At least in its early weeks, the Trump administration took an even more extreme approach to sidestepping the NSC. Trump's first National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, actually banished career senior staff from the Oval Office while Trump was talking on the phone to foreign leaders, out of concern that they might leak information to the press. According to a report in Politico, Flynn and his deputy were often the only NSC officials in the room during those calls.

But as many presidents undoubtedly have learned, it's tough to get the job done without the sort of support that the NSC provides. After Flynn was compelled to resign for not being forthcoming about contacts he'd had with the Russian ambassador prior to Trump taking office, his successor, H.R. McMaster, quietly moved to restore the NSC's traditional functions. He heeded complaints from NSC staffers that the president needed to have experts available when he was conducting diplomacy, and began inviting them back into the room [source: Palmeri]. Controversial strategist Steve Bannon was removed from the NSC in early April 2017 [source: Merica and Diamond].


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How the National Security Council Works

I've been interested in the National Security Council since the late 1980s, when as a newspaper reporter I had to cover a Republican political fundraiser in California. One of the guests was Lt. Col. Oliver North, the NSC staffer at the forefront of the Iran-Contra scandal. Unfortunately, he wasn't giving interviews that night.

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