Change to the National Security Council Backgrounder

On January 28 President Trump issued a memorandum organizing his National Security Council. That was a big deal. This post tries to explain why to a wider audience. But first, here is what the generally reserved former National Security Advisor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said about it:
The memo is a big deal. Here’s why, but first a bit of background.


Certain structures for decision making in the White House are called policy councils. There are many policy councils, each covering different types of policy, such as domestic, economic, or national security. Policy councils are both specific groups of people (similar to Boards of Directors or Advisers at companies) and also can be departments that are staffed within the White House (similar to business units within companies). What each council decides and the membership of the various councils are important determinants of the quality of decisions and what policy can be advanced.

The National Security Council (NSC) is the most important of the councils. Its purpose according its enabling legislation is to:
“advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and the other departments and agencies of the Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security.”
By statute, it is led by the President of the United States, or their delegate, and must include the Vice President and Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy but it can include others either at all meetings or only when germane. President Obama gave direction as to its jurisdiction, decision making processes, and membership in his first Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-1) published less than a month after his inauguration. Reading PPD-1 gives a good sense of how policy councils operate, with principals, deputies, and interagency committees all working to produce policy decisions.

During the Obama Administration, the NSC was extremely important to the vast majority of policy decisions. Its staff were experts at running effective process and went on to become important members of the Office of the Chief of Staff, including the Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough; his advisor and Deputy Assistant to the President, Natalie Quillian; and the Deputy Chief of Staff for Implementation and Assistant to the President, Kristie Canegallo.  Getting a seat for an NSC decision meeting on an important topic could be difficult as NSC staff tried to keep the decision making tight. However, being there was extremely important and, depending on the decision, getting specific expertise in the room could be the difference between making one decision and another. Techies in government argued strongly for tech expertise to be represented, but that will be the subject of another post with more background about other councils.

What Happened

On Saturday, January 28, President Trump, issued National Security Presidential Memorandum 2 to set up the way the NSC would work. It is normal for a new President to issue this type of memo to detail how their NSC will work. However, President Trump made one important change that I think is massive and not good. He put his political strategist, Steve Bannon on the NSC. That gives politics a literal seat at the table when the U.S. government is making decisions about national security. Worse yet, it gives a person who puts other concerns over national security a way to influence every NSC decision. That is extremely bad both in terms of the substance and optics of those decisions.

For other takes on the decision, including whether or not changes involving the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence are a big deal, see: Lawfare (which I think correctly downplays those changes and gives some description of other more minor changes), The Atlantic, and Ambassador Rice’s twitter.

Finally, it is important to note that some policy bypasses the NSC entirely. This is reportedly what happened with the immoral, illegal, and extremely poorly drafted Immigration Executive Order (for more on that, see Benjamin Wittes). No amount of proper NSC structure can protect us from that.

A sign saying "Don't think we don't see this shit you're pulling with the National Security Council"
From the LAX demonstration against the Immigration Order

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