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].
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.
More Great Links
- Allison, Graham. "How It Went Down." Time. May 7, 2012. (March 10, 2017). http://ti.me/2mxg79d
- Associated Press. "Some Soldiers Trying to Get Out of Army."Military.com. Jan. 2, 2006. (Nov. 18, 2016) http://www.military.com/NewsContent/0,13319,84249,00.html
- Baker, Peter; Cooper, Helene; and Mazzetti, Mark. "Bin Laden is Dead, Obama Says." New York Times. May 1, 2011. (March 10, 2017) http://nyti.ms/2mVa54P
- Best, Richard A. "National Security Council: An Organizational Assessment." Congressional Research Service. June 8, 2009. (March 10, 2017) http://bit.ly/2mVsMFt
- DeYoung, Karen. "How the Obama White House runs foreign policy." Washington Post. Aug. 4, 2015. (March 10, 2017) http://wapo.st/2mUgGfU
- Goodwin, Doris Kearns. "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." Simon & Schuster.2005. (March 10, 2017) http://bit.ly/2mTX2kj
- Jaffe, Alexandra. "Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates: 'Big Mistake' for Trump to Exclude Members of National Security Council." NBC News. Jan. 29, 2017. (March 10, 2017) http://nbcnews.to/2mU9jVz
- Magsamen, Kelly. "What Trump's Reshuffling of the National Security Council Means." Atlantic. Jan. 30, 2017. (March 10, 2017) http://theatln.tc/2mxehFj
- Monaghan, Jay. "Abraham Lincoln Deals with Foreign Affairs: A Diplomat in Carpet Slippers." University of Nebraska Press. 1997. (March 10, 2017) http://bit.ly/2mTUMcD
- National Security Archive. "The Iran-Contra Affair 20 Years On." Nsarchive.gdu.edu. Nov. 24, 2006. (March 10, 2017) http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB210/
- Palmeri, Tara. "NSC staff allowed back into the Oval Office for Trump's foreign calls." Politico. March 8, 2017. (March 10, 2017) http://www.politico.com/story/2017/03/nsc-staff-oval-office-trump-foreign-calls-235812
- Qiu, Linda. "PolitiFact Sheet: The National Security Council 'shakeup'." Politifact. Feb. 1, 2017. (March 10, 2017) http://bit.ly/2mxuiLr
- Rasmussen, Nick. "The Weight of One Mission: Recounting the Death of Usama bin Laden, Five Years Later." White House. May 2, 2016. (March 10, 2017) http://bit.ly/2mV12AM
- U.S. Congress. "Report of the congressional committees investigating the Iran- Contra Affair: with supplemental, minority, and additional views." Government Printing Office. Nov. 18, 1987. (March 12, 2017) http://bit.ly/2ntbmMZ
- U.S. Congress. "Report of the congressional committees investigating the Iran- Contra Affair : with supplemental, minority, and additional views," Executive Summary. "Presidency.uscb.edu. Nov. 18, 1987. (March 12, 2017) http://bit.ly/2ntbmMZ
- U.S. Dept. of State, "History of the National Security Council, 1947-1997," Aug., 1997. https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/NSChistory.htm
- White House. "Presidential Memorandum Organization of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council." Whitehouse.gov. Jan. 28, 2017. (March 10, 2017) https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/28/presidential-memorandum-organization-national-security-council-and
- Whittaker, Alan G.; Brown, Shannon A; Smith, Frederick C.; and McKune, Elizabeth. "The National Security Policy Process: The National Security Council and Interagency System." National Security Law Institute, University of Virginia. Aug. 15, 2011. (March 10, 2017). http://www.virginia.edu/cnsl/pdf/national-security-policy-process-2011.pdf