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The National Security Mechanism

Do we have the national security mechanism we need? What are the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the existing mechanism? What can we learn from the mechanisms of other countries?

The National Security Mechanism
The National Security Mechanism

(This is an expanded version of a talk delivered at a seminar on "National Security--Internal and External Dimensions" jointly organised by the Association of Retired Senior Indian Police Service Officers (ARSIPSO) and the India International Centre (IIC) at New Delhi on January 15, 2005)

1. Does India have the national security mechanism it needs? What are the inherent strengths and weaknesses of  the  mechanism it has presently? What modifications are required to remove the weaknesses while at the same time preserving and further adding to the strengths? What are the lessons which we can learn  from the mechanisms of other countries? These are some of the questions that need attention in any debate on national security.

2. National security, which, in Israel, is treated as synonymous with national survival, has the following  five major components--- diplomatic, military, internal security, economic and intelligence. These components are closely inter-linked and even if one of them is weak, national security as a whole will be correspondingly weakened. National security management is the art and technique of integrating  these components and making them function in a co-ordinated, effective and harmonious manner in times of normalcy as well as in times of crises.

3. The post-Second World War evolution of the concept of national security management has identified certain other sub-components, which  need equal attention for preserving national security and well-being.These are risk management, disruption control management, disaster mitigation and management,  whether the disaster is natural (the recent Tsunami which struck Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar and the Maldives in the Asian region) or man-made (the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984), and  consequence and national resilience management.

4. As unconventional threats to nation-States  from non-State actors such as insurgents and terrorists, trans-national criminals, narcotics smugglers, counterfeiters etc have increased, there has been a realisation that techniques and tradecraft, which served us fairly adequately against predictable  State adversaries, may not be adequate against often unpredictable non-State actors, and that new analytical tools are required to meet the new threats. The old concept of threat analysis has been supplemented by risk analysis and vulnerability analysis. Lucid analysis---whether of threats, risks or vulnerabilities---is the starting point of effective national security policy-making, implementation and co-ordination.

5. Al Qaeda's terrorist strikes of September 11,2001, in the US homeland had important lessons not only for the US, but also for the rest of the world. Among these lessons, one could mention:

  • Without effective internal security, even the most powerful political, economic and military power in the world would be at the mercy of inimical forces.

  • The globalisation of terrorism and the consequent externalisation of internal threats to security have underlined the importance of an integrated approach to national security. Such an integrated approach has always had an importance in national security management but it has acquired added importance post-9/11.
6. The US was the first to  realise the importance of such an integrated, well-structured   approach. This realisation was reflected in the creation of the National Security Council (NSC) with a dedicated national security staff in 1947. The New Delhi-based Indian strategic analysts' community often projects that the NSC is the most innovative part of the US system as it came into being in 1947.  This is not so. It is nothing but a small group of members of the Presidential Cabinet designated by law as the NSC to examine in depth national security issues, strategic or tactical, and come up with policy responses for approval by the President and subsequent implementation by different departments concerned with national security. The belief that an examination in depth of national security issues would be possible only in a small group of members of the Presidental Cabinet instead of in the large Cabinet as a whole and that  secrecy of decision-making, which is important in national security matters, could be better ensured in a small body than in a large one was behind this decision. Many countries have had such small bodies, by whatever name they were called, long before the US decided to set up the NSC.

7. The most innovative part was the setting-up of a dedicated NSC staff to service the work of the NSC by coming up with policy  options in response to national security situations for consideration by the NSC. Initially, the staff was set up by taking officers on deputation from the State and Defence Departments. Subsequently, the recruitment process was expanded to include inductions from the non-governmental world of universities, think-tanks, media and others. The NSC staff were expected to think in terms of the Government and the nation as a whole instead of in  terms of the limited vision of any individual department of the Government concerned with national security. It was meant to weed out parochial tendencies in national security policy making and implementation, without weakening the policy initiatives of independent departments.

8. Between 1947 and 1953, the NSC staff headed by an individual designated as the Executive Secretary of the NSC, essentially concerned itself with the effective co-ordination of the policy-making and implementation process on behalf of the President. The Executive Secretary was expected to be a co-ordinator par excellence and not a policy innovator and adviser. The additional role of policy adviser to the President came into prominence in 1953 when the then President Dwight Eisenhower revamped the NSC and the NSC staff mechanism and re-designated the Executive Secretary as the  Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. This post has come to be popularly referred to as the National Security Adviser (NSA).

9. The NSA, who is a member of the executive office, is not subject to Congressional control in the same way as other senior bureaucrats are. The nomination of the NSA by the President is not subject to confirmation by the Senate and he or she has no obligation to testify before Congressional committees if called upon to do so. It is for the President to decide whether national interests demanded that he or she should testify if called upon to do so and his decision cannot be called into question by the Congress. What advice the NSA gives to the President is a matter between him/her and the President and the Congress has no right to know it.

10.  There have been 19 NSAs in the USA since the post was created in 1953---six under President Ronald Reagan, three  under  Eisenhower, two under  Presidents Lyndon Johnson,Ford and  Clinton and only one under Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, Carter and George Bush Sr, the father of the present President. Brent Scrowcroft had the unique distinction of serving as the NSA under two Presidents---under Ford from November 3,1975 to January 20,1977, and under Bush Sr throughout his term. Many analysts consider Scrowcroft  as the best model of how an NSA should function---a low-profile and effective policy co-ordinator, facilitator and problem solver.

11. At the beginning of his term, every President issues an order specifying the duties of  his NSA, though Reagan never issued such an order. He downgraded the role of the NSA during his first term and made the NSA report to him though his Chief of Staff (Ed Meese), thereby even depriving him of the right of direct access to the President. He came to office with a feeling that under Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski had been allowed to wield enormous power as the NSA at the cost of the powers and initiative of individual departments. He wanted to correct it. Under Kennedy and Johnson, the role of the NSC as a whole in national security policy-making was considerably circumscribed by their individual style--particularly in the case of Johnson--of taking important decisions during informal discussions with close confidantes. They avoided formalised procedures. It was under Nixon (Kissinger) and Carter that the NSA acquired an enormous clout in the field of foreign and defence policies and an aura, which tended to stifle departmental initiative and innovation in policy-making. The NSA's post has since then been denuded of such aura, but foreign Governments, including that of India, while emulating the US system, tend to emulate the  Kissinger and Brzezinski style  aura than the substance of the system.

12.A perusal of the orders issued by various Presidents since 1953 would indicate that all of them  saw the principal task of the NSC system, with the NSA acting as its manager and facilitator, as essentially to integrate the foreign  and defence policies in such a manner as to protect national security and advance US national interests abroad. The following quotations from the official history of the NSC system would be relevant in this connection:
  • "Since the end of World War II, each Administration has sought to develop and perfect a reliable set of executive institutions to manage national security policy. Each President has tried to avoid  the problems and deficiencies of his predecessor's efforts and install a policy-making and co-ordination system that reflected his personal management style. The NSC has been at the centre of this foreign policy co-ordination system, but it has changed many times to conform with the needs and inclinations of each succeeding Chief Executive."

  • " The view that the Council's role was to foster collegiality among departments also gave way to the need by successive Presidents to use the Council  as a means of controlling and managing competing Departments."

  • "The structure and functioning of the NSC depended in no small degree  upon the interepersonal chemistry between the President and his principal advisers  and Department heads. But despite the relationships between individuals,  a satisfactory organisational structure had to be developed, for  without it the necessary flow of information  and implementation of decisions could not occur.  Although a permanent staff gradually began to take shape, the main substantive work occurred in the Departments."

  • ' For 50 years, 10 Presidents have sought  to use the NSC system  to integrate foreign and defence policies  in order to preserve the nation's security and advance its interests abroad. Recurrent structural modifications over the years have reflected  the presidential management style,  changing requirements  and personal relationships. "
13. In this system, the NSA performs two roles. Firstly, he  or she is the adviser to the President on all matters concerning national security. Secondly, he or she co-ordinates the functioning of the national security mechanism on behalf of the President. For the performance of these tasks, he or she depends on the dedicated NSC staff, who function through various committees consisting of the heads or representatives of the heads of different departments concerned with national security.

14. The orders relating to the NSA also lay down that the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in his capacity as the Director, Central Intelligence, will act as the intelligence adviser not only to the President, but also to the NSC. Similarly, the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, acts as the military adviser to the NSC. With the  recent revamping of the US intelligence system, the incumbent of the newly-created post of National Intelligence Director is expected to act as the intelligence adviser to the President as well as the NSC.

15. The important roles assigned to the Director, Central Intelligence, and the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, as advisers to the NSC and not to the NSA tended to circumscribe the role of the NSA and keep it confined to the field of foreign policy and, in some instances, defence policy as well. Till 9/11, the role of the NSAs in the fields of internal security, intelligence management  and economic security and well-being was limited to co-ordinating the decision making and implementation process. The NSAs had no advisory role in matters relating to intelligence, internal security and economic policy. Any role in economic matters, however limited,  was taken away by President Clinton  through a newly-created National Economic Council (NEC) to be serviced  by an Assistant to the President for Economic Policy.

16. A study of the background of the NSAs since 1953 would show that the majority of them barring exceptions such as Gen.Colin Powell, Admiral Pointdexter, Brent Scrowcroft, Anthony Lake etc, came from a non-governmental background, who were chosen because of their area expertise and their expertise in foreign policy matters. They felt comfortable dealing with  foreign policy and  State actors.

17. The US has never had as an NSA someone who was an expert in intelligence, internal security or economic matters. The NSAs, with no experience or expertise in these important components of national security, felt uncomfortable dealing with subjects  such as terrorism, law enforcement, the various aspects of internal security, economic security and well-being etc and with non-State actors. They tended to over-focus on foreign policy matters, leaving other aspects of national security, particularly internal security, to their subordinates. The inevitable result: 9/11. One only has to read the   book "Against All Enemies", written by Richard Clarke, who was the  counter-terrorism co-ordinator in the NSC staff before and during 9/11, to see how out of depths Ms.Condoleeza Rice, the then NSA, was in matters relating to counter-terrorism and how helpless she looked.

18. She was essentially a Russian-speaking expert on Russia from the academic  world , who had served with some distinction under Scrowcroft when he was the NSA under Bush Sr, but her exposure to internal security policies and non-State actors-related issues was very limited. After 9/11, the Homeland Security related issues have received much greater attention in the US, but this is yet to be reflected adequately in the composition of the NSC staff and their areas of focus.

19. In the Indian strategic analysts' community, there is an  uncritical admiration for the US national security system as epitomised by the NSC and its staff. They romanticise the American system and attribute to it virtues, which even American analysts do not ascribe to it. These analysts tell us that the NSC and its staff  spend more time focussing on strategic, long-term studies than on tactical fire-fightingb tasks which are left to the departments concerned, , whereas, in reality, most of their time is spent on day-to-day fire-fighting than in long-term studies.

20. Apart from the pre-1988 success against the erstwhile USSR in Afghanistan and the collapse of international communism, how many other strategic successes can you attribute to the NSC and its staff? Vietnam, Iran, 9/11, post-9/11 developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq are not testimonials to the good functioning of the US national security system.


21.  The Cabinet Secretary was the linchpin of the British model as it existed before 9/11 and co-ordinated the functioning of the national security  apparatus, including the intelligence agencies, civilian as well as  military. He was assisted in this task by the  Permanent Secretaries Committee on the Intelligence Services,  the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), who wore a second hat as  Director, Security and  Intelligence Matters, and the heads of the set-ups for disaster and consequence management. . The JIC Chairman was responsible for the assessment of the intelligence provided by the agencies, for monitoring their performance  and for co-ordinating physical security.

22. The Cabinet Secretary had a very limited role in the formulation and implementation of foreign  and defence policies, which were largely managed by the respective political and professional heads of the Foreign Office and the Defence Department. The Cabinet Secretary's role was more as a facilitator and co-ordinator of national security policy-making than as an adviser to the Prime Minister on foreign and security policies.

23. Post-9/11, the need for a dedicated co-ordinator of security and intelligence, who would not be involved in the day-to-day running of the intelligence and security agencies and who would not be burdened with other responsibilities as the Cabinet Secretary was, was felt.  Accordingly, Prime Minister Tony Blair created in 2002 a post of Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator and Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office to take over from the Cabinet Secretary the responsibilities till then performed by the latter in matters relating to security and intelligence. It was, however, laid down that he would report to the Cabinet Secretary and through him to the Prime Minister. The order creating the post said: "This new Permanent Secretary Post is being created to enhance the capacity at the centre of Government to co-ordinate security, intelligence anbd consequence management matters  and to deal with risks and major emergencies should they arise. "

24. His functions were laid down as follows:
  • The Principal Accounting Officer for a Single Intelligence Account (that is, preparation of a consolidated budget for all the intelligence agencies).
  • Chairing the Permanent Secretaries' Committee on the Intelligence Services (PSIS), which advises on intelligence collection requirements, on the agencies' programmes and expenditure, and on co-ordination issues  such as the promotion of joint working between the agencies and other Departments.
  • Chairing the Central Official Committee to ensure the implementation of CONTEST, the Government's five-year counter-terrorism strategy.
  • Deputy Chair of the Civil Contingenies Committee.
  • Co-chairing the US-UK Joint Contact Group on Homeland Security.
  • Chairing the Official Committee on Security to ensure the implementation of the Government's Protective Security Strategy.

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