The National Security Council (NSC) is a statutory body formed shortly after World War II (WWII) pursuant to the National Security Act of 1947, as amended (the Act).1 The NSC staff supports the mission of the NSC, the National Security Advisor (NSA), and the President of the United States as an “advise and assist” component of the Executive Office of the President.2 Situated in the grand Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB) on the eighteen-acre White House complex, the NSC staff takes up the entire third floor of the building—once considered the heart of the national security and foreign relations establishment of the United States.3 The NSC staff is composed of senior political appointees and elite career national security and foreign relations professionals. For nineteen months, I had the distinct privilege to observe and participate in the interagency coordination and policy-making process as a deputy legal advisor on the NSC staff. In scores of meetings in the EEOB and the West Wing, I observed leaders execute the NSC’s coordination function with interagency counterparts on a broad range of topics of geo-strategic importance. The best leaders had several traits in common. Whether on the NSC Staff, or at the unit level, these traits are hallmarks of effective staff coordination.
The NSC Staff Structure
The purpose of the NSC staff is two-fold—(1) to provide confidential advice to the President on matters of foreign relations and national security and (2) to coordinate policy development and implementation across the executive branch.4 The Act, as amended, does not grant the NSC staff any power to direct or task department and agencies to execute these functions.5 The NSC staff achieves its objectives by acting primarily through other powers. These other powers or “soft powers” of the NSC emanate from its proximity to the President and the powers he vests in the NSC staff through implementing guidance. Pursuant to National Security Presidential Memorandum–4 (NSPM-4), the NSC staff is authorized to convene interagency coordination meetings, set the meeting agenda, and generate a summary of conclusions about what was agreed to at the meeting.6 Convening an interagency coordination meeting with relevant senior executive branch decision–makers on a specific topic can be a difficult undertaking, which makes NSC soft powers substantial. There are three formal meetings convened pursuant to NSPM-4.7
A Policy Coordination Committee (PCC) is convened at the Assistant Secretary level by an NSC Staff Senior Director—typically political appointees; the Deputies Committee (DC) is convened by the Deputy National Security Advisor (DNSA) with deputy department and agency counterparts; and the Principals Committee (PC) meeting is convened by the NSA with counterpart cabinet-level department and agency heads. In the current administration, a formal NSC meeting—chaired by the President with the heads of departments and agencies—is an infrequent occurrence. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff attends the PC and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff attends the DC. A recurring meeting, not specified in NSPM-4, is the sub-PCC. To advance the implementation of policy objectives, the sub-PCC and the PCC contribute the majority of the grunt work and coordination. National Security Council staff directors convene the sub-PCC at the Deputy Assistant Secretary, or one-star, level. Meetings of the sub-PCC or PCC on a national security initiative often culminate in a DC or PC. During these meetings, senior participants are empowered to compel their agencies to implement coordinated and unified policies. Once agreement is secured at a PC or DC meeting, departments and agencies execute policy pursuant to their statutory authorities.
The NSC staff is small and agile. Pursuant to statute, the NSC staff is restricted to no more than 200 policy personnel.8 This statute accounts for its size. These policy personnel cover almost every national security and foreign relations matter of national interest. In addition, the NSC staff is flat and—therefore—agile. To reach the DNSA or NSA, an NSC director reports to an intermediary, typically a senior director.9 Directors interact regularly with the DNSA or NSA on matters falling within the scope of their responsibilities. Consequently, the size and agility of the NSC staff allows actions to move swiftly to the DNSA or NSA for decision by one or more cabinet officials or the President.10 This permits the system to function in a crisis response setting, as it did during the attacks on the Saudi oil fields in September 2019. The system also functions well in routine processes, even for Herculean endeavors—such as the 2018 coordination and implementation of NSPM-13, also known as the United States Cyber Operations Policy.11 National Security Presidential Memorandum-13 was monumental in that, for the first time, it allowed the delegation of certain authorities to the Department of Defense (DoD) to conduct time-sensitive military operations in cyberspace.12
Over its history, the mission and power of the NSC has waxed and waned. When the soft power wielded by the NSC staff wanes, policies implemented by departments and agencies risk becoming discordant. Without NSC staff coordination, each department and agency can become absorbed in its own fiefdom, causing friction through competing missions and resulting in an apparent lack of coherence in the executive branch’s policies. The Syria troop withdrawal and Afghanistan troop strategy are two examples of such friction in the current administration.13 The NSC of the Johnson administration, which resulted in poor decisions about the Vietnam War, is a classic historical example of a weak or discordant NSC.14
The single largest personnel contributor to the NSC staff during my tenure was the DoD. Detailees included distinguished senior uniform Service members and DoD Civilians. Department of Defense uniformed Service members—typically senior lieutenant colonels, colonels, and several general officer/flag officers—are assigned as directors. These uniformed military personnel, with decades of experience, are seasoned in military arts and sciences including: mission command, logistics, planning, and coordination. This experience makes DoD personnel well-equipped to operate on the NSC staff. Effective military and non-military leaders on the NSC staff exhibit the following traits.
In this case, competence refers to consummate expertise in a field and a nuanced mastery of all aspects of a particular topic. Many of the staff have higher degrees—PhDs, masters, and professional degrees were abundant. Such deep knowledge allows the staff to consider all facets of a particular policy proposal or national security problem and to be the undisputed subject matter experts when dealing with counterparts, whether at the White House or in a department or agency.
The most successful operators are meticulous planners, writers, and organizers.15 Short, but comprehensive writing is a critical component of an organized, planned process to move a policy concept through NSC coordination mileposts. Organization—including effective correspondence management, meeting preparation, and time management—is critical given that staff typically attend three- to five-hour long meetings a day and manage several hundred emails across multiple classified and unclassified networks. A script or road map for a meeting is an effective tool to keep participants on task.
Successful NSC staff have a vision of what they intend the policy to be and what the policy is to achieve. They have a passion for their work and a plan to move policy from formulation to implementation. Successful staff are able to articulate their vision to others in written and verbal communications in a rational, fact-based manner.
Energy, grit, and resolve are traits that couple a diligent work ethic with the fortitude to navigate policy through a fraught interagency coordination process. Stewarding multiple departments and agencies with varied, sometimes conflicting, interests towards a coordinated national policy requires significant energy.
Comradery amongst NSC staff is a key factor in how well they work together at the director level. Relationships are based on mutual respect and trust. These relationships are critical since a policy initiative may have equities across multiple regional, issue-focused, and functional directorates, as well as departments and agencies. Stakeholders, both inside and outside the NSC, can provide input and concurrence for a policy to proceed through the interagency coordination process. Each stakeholder represents their own department and agency mission, perspective, and power center. Ultimately, these factors must align in order to develop coherent national policy. Successful staff know who to go to and what coordination is necessary to implement policy in the future. Building relationships based on respect, diligence, competence, and a shared vision are hallmarks of a successful NSC staff.
Successful NSC staff reach out to the relevant stakeholders—on the staff and at departments and agencies—prior to formal meetings, discuss proposed policies, and secure concurrence. Only then does a formal meeting take place. This is particularly impressive given the absence of statutory authority the NSC exerts throughout the coordination process. Due to their leadership and management skills, depth of expertise, experience in building relationships, and coordinating actions, DoD staff are well-suited to NSC staff work. These traits displayed by effective NSC staff are the same traits successful staff officers must demonstrate to succeed in every military unit. TAL
1. 50 U.S.C. § 3021 (2018) amended by National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, Pub. L. No. 116–92 (2019).
2. See Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Wash. v. Trump, 302 F. Supp. 3d 127 (D.D.C. 2018); Meyer v. Bush, 981 F.2d 1288 (D.C. Cir. 1993); Protect Democracy Project, Inc. v. United States DoD, 320 F. Supp. 3d 162 (D.D.C. 2018); DoD Grants and Agreements, 32 C.F.R. pt. 21 (2020). See also Memorandum from Webster L. Hubbell, Associate Attorney General, to Principal FOIA Administrative and Legal Contacts At All Federal Agencies (Nov. 3, 1993), https://www.justice.gov/oip/blog/foia-update-foia-memo-white-house-records (DOJ OIP memo on White House Records). Advise and assist components of the Executive Office of the President are considered the President’s personal staff. They are not agencies and are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. This status ensures that, generally, advice to the President can be provided without threat of disclosure to the public or Congress. It allows the administration to develop effective policy in private and provide the President time to digest the input from his closest advisors; after careful deliberation, the President can make a decision. The intent is to protect the deliberative process and have a free flow of ideas. Congressional oversight of the President’s decisions and administrations actions subsequent to internal deliberations have historically been the norm.
3. Prior to WWII the Eisenhower Executive Office Building housed the Department of War, Department of State, and Department of the Navy. It was once the largest office building in Washington, D.C.
4. Supra note 1. National Security Council functions:
(1) advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the Armed Forces and the other departments and agencies of the United States Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security; (2) assess and appraise the objectives, commitments, and risks of the United States in relation to the actual and potential military power of the United States, and make recommendations thereon to the President; (3) make recommendations to the President concerning policies on matters of common interest to the departments and agencies of the United States Government concerned with the national security; and (4) coordinate, without assuming operational authority, the United States Government response to malign foreign influence operations and campaigns.
6. National Security Presidential Memorandum from United States President to Vice President, et al., subject: Organization of the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council, and Subcommittees (4 Apr. 2017), https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/national-security-presidential-memorandum-4/. The staff is composed of regional, issue-focused, and functional directorates and headed by a single civilian Executive Secretary, pursuant to 50 U.S.C. § 3021, who is also the Chief of Staff. Id.
7. See Colonel Peter R. Hayden, Executive Counsel: A Deputy Legal Advisor’s Work at the NSC, Army Law., 2020 Iss. No. 2, at 16.
8. Supra note 1. The professional staff for which this subsection provides shall not exceed 200 persons, including persons employed by, assigned to, detailed to, under contract to serve on, or otherwise serving or affiliated with the staff. The limitation in this paragraph does not apply to personnel serving substantially in support or administrative positions. Id.
9. Ceremonials Div. of the Off. of the Chief of Protocol, The Order of Precedence of the United States of America (Nov. 3, 2017), https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Order-of-Precedence.pdf.
10. The volume of actions was remarkably high. For instance, a deputy legal advisor would process 300-400 emails per day; and, during the course of a twelve to fourteen hour work day, they would attend meetings that lasted three to four hours.
11. See generally Ellen Nakashima, White House Authorizes ‘Offensive Cyber Operations’ to Deter Foreign Adversaries, Wash. Post (Sept. 20, 2018, 7:18 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trump-authorizes-offensive-cyber-operations-to-deter-foreign-adversaries-bolton-says/2018/09/20/b5880578-bd0b-11e8-b7d2-0773aa1e33da_story.html.
12. Honorable Paul C. Ney Jr., DoD General Counsel Remarks at U.S. Cyber Command Legal Conference (Mar. 2, 2020) (clarified that the President has authority to direct military operations in cyberspace to counter adversary cyber operations against our national interests and that such operations, whether they amount to the conduct of hostilities or not, and even when conducted in secret, are to be considered traditional military activities and not covert action, for purposes of the covert action statute).
13. Trump’s Foreign Policy Moments, 2017–2020, Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/timeline/trumps-foreign-policy-moments (last visited July 22, 2020).
14. I.M. Destler & Ivo H. Daalder, A New NSC for a New Administration, Brookings (Nov. 15, 2000), https://www.brookings.edu/research/a-new-nsc-for-a-new-administration/.
15. Prior to joining the staff, and to ensure they were effective written communicators, most candidates were required to submit writing samples.