How the National Security Council Works

By: Patrick J. Kiger

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].

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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More Great Links


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