Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

National Security

"Within the area of foreign affairs, I believe...the Secretary of State [should] be your vicar for the community of Departments." -- Alexander Haig

"The National Security Council is, by far, the most dominant entity in foreign policy making in this administration...[Samuel] Berger and [his deputy] really are the source of most policy development and most policy coordination in this administration." -- Two former senior officials in the Clinton White House

The organizing principle espoused by Secretary Haig lost out many years ago; in every White House since Eisenhower, the Clinton/Berger model has grown to be the norm. In the George W. Bush White House, that White House-centered norm has reached a zenith of development.

The national security community of the Executive Branch is an amalgam of institutions, each containing a vast emporium of agencies and offices: State (including our embassies and consulates, plus our overseas communications and foreign assistance programs), Defense (encompassing the armed forces and very large intelligence components), the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice (including the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration) and often also the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, and Energy. No aspect of the presidency is more far-reaching, vital and sensitive -- and more challenging to coordinate and control.

Impelled by the lacks of coordination revealed during the war years, Congress enacted the National Security Act of 1947, which created the National Security Council -- a cabinet committee chaired by the President -- as the central coordinating body for the national security community. The staff of the National Security Council is de jure an element of the Executive Office of the President, but de facto is a central element of the White House staff itself. President Eisenhower created a new position to head that staff: the assistant to the President for national security affairs; every President since has continued that office and strengthened the staff. The twenty senior-most NSC officers have presidential titles and rank; the total staff now numbers nearly two hundred, many of them detailees from State, Defense, and CIA.

The center-point for national security policy -- and for oversight of many of its operations -- is the President. The NSC staff has grown dramatically to match the equally dramatic growth that has occurred in the national security duties of the President. Two examples:

  • The President of today is now chief diplomat, constantly meeting face-to-face with foreign chiefs of state in one-on-one sessions or in multilateral conferences. In addition, the modern President is, hour by hour, on the telephone with the presidents/prime ministers of other nations. These contacts are by no means merely ceremonial; the American chief executive is now chief negotiator with his counterparts all over the world, and, whether face-to-face or on the telephone, he personally takes the lead in discussing the most difficult, contentious, and portentous issues in world affairs. Every briefing memorandum for or summary from these presidential-level contacts is generated by the NSC staff.


  • The President always has been the commander in chief -- but today's technology permits him to reach out to, or hear from, the diplomat, the general -- or the individual soldier -- in the most remote outpost, overhear or read almost any secret electronic communication abroad, watch the slightest American or enemy movement on any battlefield, peruse the photographs from each reconaissance drone or satellite. Every important message -- out of the daily five hundred thousand -- transmitted to or from any element of our national security community is copied to the White House. It is the NSC's 24-hour-duty Situation Room which sets the standards for intake and does the winnowing of this gargantuan flood of information, and it is the NSC staff which decides which piece of that deluge requires presidential attention, and how quickly.

A network of interagency committees, many of them chaired by senior NSC staff members, pull together the policy ideas from the agencies of the national security community and prepare the option papers to be discussed at National Security Council meetings. The NSC has its own legal advisers, press secretaries, and speechwriters.

It is then little wonder that the assistant to the President for national security affairs is one of the President's closest advisers, or that the NSC staff is the largest policy unit in the contemporary White House.