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A National Security Council everyone can love, or at least be a member of

One area in which the Obama administration is carrying forward a long tradition has to do with the vital issue of national security memo naming and acronym establishment (NSMNAE). Administration after administration has felt it was absolutely vital to discard the memo names and acronyms established by their predecessors in order to make their mark with brand new and different memo names and acronyms that communicate that it is a new day in America, a safer day, a more powerful day.

In Washington, everything tastes better wrapped in a new acronym. In Presidential Security Directive 1, President Obama memorably asserts:

This document is the first in a series of Presidential Policy Directives that, along with Presidential Study Directives, shall replace National Security Presidential Directives as instruments for communicating presidential decisions about national security policies of the United States."

So now, knowledgeable insiders will refer in short-hand to PPDs and PSDs instead of outré and so-five-mintues-ago NSPDs or even more outmoded Clinton Era Presidential Decision Directives (PDDs) and Presidential Review Directives (PRDs). Not to mention the antiquated National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs), National Security Decision Memorandums (NSDMs), National Security Presidential Directives (NSPDs), National Security Study Directives (NSSDs) or National Security Study Memorandums (NSSMs) or Presidential Review Memorandums (PRMs) of the past. Clearly, we are all, deep inside, the children we once were and this whole memo-naming exercise is a message from each President to the world that "it's my NSC and I will play with it any way I want to."

Of course, PPD 1 does more than just carry forward this great American tradition of leadership. Like other such establishing memos, it importantly determines who will have their seat at the situation room conference table reserved for them by a small nameplate that whispers (authoritatively) that they are a member of the inner circle. At least, that's what they think it whispers. In the case of this NSC, maybe not so much. Because the most notable take-away from PPD 1 is that the Obama administration is going to be really inclusive. Too inclusive, in fact, to work as laid out in the memo.

The NSC shall have as its members the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of Energy, as prescribed by statute. In addition, the membership of the NSC shall include the Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations, the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff (Chief of Staff to the President), and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (National Security Advisor). The Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as statutory advisers to the NSC, shall attend NSC meetings. The Counsel to the President shall be invited to attend every NSC meeting, and the Assistant to the President and Deputy Nation Security Advisor shall attend every meeting, and serve as Secretary.


When international economic issues are on the agenda of the NSC, the NSC's regular attendees will include the Secretary of Commerce, the United States Trade Representative, the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, and the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. When homeland security or
counter-terrorism related issues are on the agenda, the NSC's regular attendees will include the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism. When science and technology related issues are on the agenda, the NSC's regular attendees will include the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The heads of other executive departments
and agencies, and other senior officials, shall be invited to attend meetings of the NSC as appropriate."

That's quite a group. But if history is any indication, official meetings of the NSC will take place infrequently at first and then become even less frequent. Principals Committee meetings (which are meetings of the NSC at which the president is not present and where the National Security Advisor chairs) happen more often and in the Obama years, these will also include, in addition to everyone cited above, the participation of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Deputy Secretary of State and the Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs.

They may have to add stadium seating in the situation room. Now, bloating the membership of the NSC is not an Obama administration innovation. (And it is getting pretty bloated, particularly when you consider that the NSC's statutory membership started out as the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.)

The group has, over time, consistently gotten steadily bigger, even as specifics ebbed and flowed with each administration. As a consequence, what also has happened over the years, as the group gets bigger and bigger, is that these bigger formal structures have proved unwieldly and the really key work has been done in smaller groups whether they are informal lunchtime conversations with the President or small regular phone groups between the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, which have been a common feature in recent administrations.

The other group where the heavy lifting of policy making is done is the Deputies Committee. As in the past, this memo indicates that this group will consist of Deputy Secretaries and agency heads, but it won't. Soon under secretaries and others who actually know the briefs being discussed will work their way in and ultimately will be far more regular attendees at most of these meetings.

Reading between the lines, this memo further underscores what is already becoming apparent -- this is very much a White House centric administration. Obama, Biden, Jim Jones, Rahm Emanuel, Greg Craig (who one imagines might be behind the language that specifies the White House Counsel "shall be invited to attend every NSC meeting"), and Jones Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will be fixtures at every meeting. Then, given the nature of the world, the heads of the big White House economic team will also be in many. Notably, also, the PPD also sets up Jones to be the real driving force behind these processes which puts him in a position to be, after Obama, the single most important voice in shaping U.S. national security policy. (A role he is strengthening via his shrewdly managed lowish profile, emulating the gold standard among National Security Advisors, Brent Scowcroft.) Adding U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, formerly one of the President's top campaign advisors, and some of these other White House voices to the mix while also firmly establishing Jones's primacy in terms of process coordination might be seen as something of a dilution of the power of the Secretary of State who is certainly one among many in this throng. While you might say the same about the voice of DoD, with Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and two former four-stars, Jones and Denny Blair, in every meeting you imagine the voices of the defense community will be heard.

In a related development, the White House has also produced its first Presidential Study Directive (PSD-1), launching an internal review to be run by counter-terror advisor John Brennan designed to evaluate whether or not to trash can the Homeland Security Council and fold its operations into the NSC where they belong. This is kabuki theater designed to protect the White House from anti-terror zealots who will inevitably criticize them for being soft on terror when they do the right thing and get rid of this duplicative council. Nobody, including some of the folks who served on the council with whom I have spoken, thought it added much value (beyond the appearance of elevating the issue) and the idea of separating overseas threats (most of which are covered by the NSC) from defending the homeland is, well, absurd and rather dangerous.

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