President Obama plans to order a sweeping overhaul of the National Security Council, expanding its membership and increasing its authority to set strategy across a wide spectrum of international and domestic issues.
The result will be a "dramatically different" NSC from that of the Bush administration or any of its predecessors since the forum was established after World War II to advise the president on diplomatic and military matters, according to national security adviser James L. Jones, who described the changes in an interview. "The world that we live in has changed so dramatically in this decade that organizations that were created to meet a certain set of criteria no longer are terribly useful," he said.
Jones, a retired Marine general, made it clear that he will run the process and be the primary conduit of national security advice to Obama, eliminating the "back channels" that at times in the Bush administration allowed Cabinet secretaries and the vice president's office to unilaterally influence and make policy out of view of the others.
"We're not always going to agree on everything," Jones said, and "so it's my job to make sure that minority opinion is represented" to the president. "But if at the end of the day he turns to me and says, 'Well, what do you think, Jones?,' I'm going to tell him what I think."
The new structure, to be outlined in a presidential directive and a detailed implementation document by Jones, will expand the NSC's reach far beyond the range of traditional foreign policy issues and turn it into a much more elastic body, with Cabinet and departmental seats at the table -- historically occupied only by the secretaries of defense and state -- determined on an issue-by-issue basis. Jones said the directive will probably be completed this week.
"The whole concept of what constitutes the membership of the national security community -- which, historically has been, let's face it, the Defense Department, the NSC itself and a little bit of the State Department, to the exclusion perhaps of the Energy Department, Commerce Department and Treasury, all the law enforcement agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration, all of those things -- especially in the moment we're currently in, has got to embrace a broader membership," he said.
New NSC directorates will deal with such department-spanning 21st-century issues as cybersecurity, energy, climate change, nation-building and infrastructure. Many of the functions of the Homeland Security Council, established as a separate White House entity by President Bush after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, may be subsumed into the expanded NSC, although it is still undetermined whether elements of the HSC will remain as a separate body within the White House.
Over the next 50 days, John O. Brennan, a CIA veteran who serves as presidential adviser for counterterrorism and homeland security and is Jones's deputy, will review options for the homeland council, including its responsibility for preparing for and responding to natural and terrorism-related domestic disasters. In a separate interview, Brennan described his task as a "systems engineering challenge" to avoid overlap with the new NSC while ensuring that "homeland security matters, broadly defined, are going to get the attention they need from the White House."
Organizational maps within the government will be redrawn to ensure that all departments and agencies take the same regional approach to the world, Jones said. The State Department, for example, considers Afghanistan, Pakistan and India together as South Asia, while the Pentagon draws a line at the Pakistan-India border, with the former under the Central Command and the latter part of the Pacific Command. Israel is part of the military's European Command, but the rest of the Middle East falls under Central Command; the State Department combines Israel and the Arab countries surrounding it in its Near East Bureau.
"We are going to reflect in the NSC all the regions of the world along some map line we can all agree on," Jones said.
The national security process, he said, will also be "transparent to its clients" inside the administration, with meeting agendas and outcomes made available to "the whole community" in real time. Each department will appoint someone to monitor the NSC process, enabling senior officials across the government to be ready to jump into issues without steep learning curves.
Directorates inside Jones's NSC staff will oversee implementation of decisions. "It doesn't mean that we micromanage or supervise," he said. "But you have to make sure, . . . particularly if it's a presidential decision, that the president is kept abreast of how things are going. That it doesn't just fall off the end of the table and disappear into outer space."
Most modern chief executives have issued an early directive outlining a structure for making national security decisions. Although the 1947 National Security Act created the NSC and listed its membership -- including the president, the vice president, and the secretaries of state and defense -- each president has redefined it to fit his own needs and style. In recent administrations, the CIA director, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and at times the Treasury secretary have regularly attended principals meetings. At the same time, the role and power of the president's national security adviser, and the size of his staff, have grown larger or smaller depending on the president's wishes.
But initial presidential intentions have often been waylaid by personalities and events. George W. Bush criticized Bill Clinton's NSC style as rambling and indecisive. Over the next eight years, however -- as first-term Bush adviser Condoleezza Rice was outmaneuvered by Vice President Richard B. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and as Bush's second term became mired in an unpopular war and a failing economy -- decision-making quickly became more reactive than strategic, and deliberations were opaque to all but a small inner circle.
The Obama administration -- with powerful figures such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates -- appears crowded at the top of the national security pyramid and heavy with military officials, including Jones himself and retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair as director of national intelligence. Special envoys to trouble spots -- former diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and former senator George J. Mitchell to the Middle East -- have been given broad presidential authority.
Although Jones said he strongly supports increased resources for the State Department, which is increasingly dwarfed by the size and expanding missions of the Defense Department, he has long been an outspoken proponent of a "pro-active military" in noncombat regions. He has advocated military collaboration with the oil and gas industry and with nongovernmental organizations abroad.
But Jones said he sees an administration filled with colleagues rather than competitors. Since Jan. 20, "I've had more meetings with the secretary of state and the secretary of defense than I've had in my entire lifetime," said Jones, who served as Marine Corps commandant, NATO military chief and, under Bush, a special Middle East envoy.
During a midafternoon interview last Thursday, Jones said he had already spoken face to face with Gates and had four telephone conversations with him that day. He has set up a standing Wednesday morning meeting with Gates and Clinton together in his office.
"I believe in collegiality . . . in sounding out people and getting them to participate," Jones said. "I notice the president is very good at that." But he made clear he plans to apply military-like discipline to the NSC. "The most important thing is that you are in fact the coordinator and you're the guy around which the meetings occur. When we chair a principals meeting, I'm the chairman." One of the first of many internal Bush administration clashes occurred when Cheney proposed that he, rather than Rice, chair NSC meetings.
In his initial conversations with Obama before taking the job, Jones confirmed, he insisted on being "in charge" and having open and final access to the president on all national security matters. "We engaged in about an hour-long discussion about what I was already thinking about the NSC; it happened, I think, to mesh pretty well with what his instincts were. He was clear about the role of the national security adviser," Jones said of Obama.
The NSC will take on all national security matters that are strategic in nature and "of such importance that the president of the United States would care" about them, he said. Action groups from various departments and agencies will be formed around specific issues for as long as it takes to resolve them. "Some of these things will be very short-term. When the problem goes away, the group goes away." Others will be ongoing. "An Afghan strategic review, that's going to take a while," Jones said. "The policy that is generated from that review, and the implementation, is going to take a while."
Some principals will be regulars at the NSC "just by force of issues," he said, and "you can't just designate the whole government as being there." But everyone should be kept aware of "what's going on" and given an opportunity to say, 'Wait a minute, I've got something to say here.' "