As House and Senate efforts to reform the National Security Council gain traction, a new survey shows concern among defense policymakers and stakeholders that President Obama’s coalition of senior national security advisers and cabinet officials is too large.
The survey, released Monday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, could bolster the case of lawmakers pushing to shrink the size and boost oversight of the National Security Council using annual defense legislation.
Leaders in the House and Senate have proposed language for the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act to reduce the size of the council, which currently employs about 400 staffers. On Tuesday, the full House approved by a voice vote a measure that would cap the size of the National Security Council staff at 100 people and boost oversight if the council exceeded that size.
The survey suggests that individuals who work in and around the defense sector support an effort to shrink the NSC, despite opposition from some Democrats.
CSIS queried individuals with professional experience in the military and the executive and legislative branches, as well as stakeholders outside of government, on a number of defense reform issues in early March.
Respondents were asked to rate key defense leaders and institutions on a scale of 1 to 10 about their strength and size. The survey, with over 900 respondents, found that Obama’s National Security Council was consistently rated "too strong" and "too large."
"Respondents found [the National Security Council] to be unequivocally ‘too strong,’ scoring close to a 6.9" on a 10-point scale, CSIS explained. "This perception of a ‘too strong’ NSC staff is shared across all of the demographic groups, to include across the military services and expressed most strongly by those respondents identifying themselves with the legislative branch."
The survey results also "demonstrate a general concern that the key institutions of [the Department of Defense] and the NSC staff are too large relative to need," according to the think tank’s report.
"The National Security Council staff is identified as the organization of greatest concern within the survey’s choices [with regard to size]," the report stated. "This concern about the NSC staff’s size is shared fairly equally among all demographic groups, with the group of Marine Corps respondents seeing the largest gap between need and size (too large). Overall, military respondents were almost equally as concerned about the size of [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] as they were about the size of the NSC staff."
Respondents gave the National Security Council almost a 7.5 rating for size on average, where 10 was the strongest response for "too large."
Survey respondents included representatives from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Civilian members of the executive branch who participated included individuals from the Defense Department, the National Security Council staff, the State Department, and other U.S. government agencies.
Military leaders and other critics have complained that the council under Obama has micromanaged defense matters, but the push to reduce its size and role was fueled by recent allegations that Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s top national security advisers, and other administration officials misled the American public to sell the nuclear deal with Iran.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, introduced an amendment to the NDAA last week to limit the size of the council and subject the national security adviser to confirmation by the Senate if the staff exceeds 100.
"I believe the traditional role filled by the NSC—of coordinating policy and offering advice to the President—is essential and should continue. History proves that 100 people are enough to get that job done," Thornberry said in a statement announcing the amendment, which passed the House on Tuesday.
"If the president wants an NSC modeled after the current one—an NSC that makes operational decisions, builds misinformation campaigns, and absorbs most national security functions within the White House—it will come with accountability and oversight from Congress," Thornberry said.
Rep. Adam Smith (D., Wash.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, argued against the amendment on the House floor the same day, insisting that the growth of the council reflects the increasing complexity of the threat environment.
The White House threatened to veto the House version of the annual defense bill on Monday. The Office of Management and Budget issued a statement objecting to multiple provisions in the bill and citing "constitutional concerns," though it did not specifically mention the amendment reforming the National Security Council.
The Senate’s version of the defense bill, which was marked up by the Armed Services Committee in a closed-door session last week, includes similar language limiting the size of the National Security Council to 150 staffers. The committee noted in a summary of the bill that the council was initially envisioned in 1947 to be "a small group of the president’s staff, focused on developing whole-of-government national security strategy and coordinating it across the interagency."
"In addition to the growth in size, and largely enabled by it, we have seen an expansion of the NSC staff’s role into tactical and operational issues," the committee wrote. "This provision seeks to push the NSC staff toward prioritizing the strategic mission that led Congress to create it in the first place, while maintaining executive privilege for its activities."
The full Senate is due to mark up the legislation next week, while the House is expected to vote on the bill Wednesday.