NSC (National Security Council)

NSC (National Security Council)


Established by the National Security Act of 1947, the National Security Council (NSC) was intended to serve as the principal advisory board for the president of the United States on matters of national security and foreign policy. In practice, the importance of the NSC and the National Security Advisor has depended on the degree of power the chief executive accords to it. The NSC consists of four statutory members—president, vice president, and secretaries of State and Defense—along with two statutory advisors, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of Central Intelligence. Other officials participate as requested.

Presidents and their NSCs

The 1947 National Security Act became Public Law 235–61 Stat. 496; U.S.C. 402. Two years later, Congress passed the National Security Act Amendments of 1949 (63 Stat. 579; 50 U.S.C. 401 et seq.) These amendments led to a reorganization plan whereby the NSC became part of the executive office of the president. Whereas Congress and the departments of State and Defense had each sought to place the new council under their control, thenceforth—assuming it had any role at all—the NSC would be under the leadership of the president.

Harry S. Truman, the first president with an NSC, made little use of the council, but Dwight D. Eisenhower relied heavily on the NSC. John F. Kennedy, on the other hand, placed little emphasis on the NSC as such, but relied heavily on the first of many powerful National Security Advisors, McGeorge Bundy. In subsequent administrations, the emphasis on the NSC itself has shifted, but the president's reliance on the National Security Advisor seems to be a constant.

Democratic presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, James E. Carter, and William J. Clinton, have tended to approach the NSC with distrust upon entering office, and to supplant its functions with outside committees thereafter. Nevertheless, each relied heavily on National Security Advisors, including Bundy in Johnson's early years, Zbigniew Brzezinski throughout Carter's term, and Samuel "Sandy" Berger in Clinton's second term.

Republican administrations. Republicans, by contrast, have typically entered office with a positive view of the NSC itself, or at least of the National Security Advisor's role. In the administration of Richard M. Nixon, the NSC itself played little role, but NSC Advisor Henry Kissinger was perhaps second only to Nixon in power during the early 1970s. As Nixon's influence waned due to the Watergate scandal, Kissinger's importance continued into the administration of Gerald R. Ford.

The NSC of Ronald Reagan took an extremely activist role in overseas affairs, to such an extent that this led to another scandal, the Iran-Contra affair. National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and his successor, Admiral John Poindexter, played key roles in fomenting the scheme to sell arms to the Iranian fundamentalist regime in exchange for the release of hostages, and to direct proceeds from these sales to the anticommunist Contras in Nicaragua.

President Bush sits with his National Security Council during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, September 12, 2001. From left to right, Secretary of State Colin Powell, President Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Henry Shelton. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
President Bush sits with his National Security Council during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, September 12, 2001. From left to right, Secretary of State Colin Powell, President Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Henry Shelton.

After Poindexter's departure, Reagan appointed Lieutenant General Colin Powell, who ran a tight, no-nonsense NSC. George H. W. Bush, who made Powell Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appointed Brent Scowcroft as National Security Advisor. Scowcroft, who had directed the NSC after Kissinger left the position in 1975, was known for his warm relations with other centers of power around the president—including the National Security Advisor's two traditional rivals for the president's ear, the secretaries of Defense and State. This collegial tradition continued in the administration of George W. Bush, as National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice worked closely with Secretary of State Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the war on terror.

NSC members. The chairman of the National Security Council is the president, who relies to varying degrees on the National Security Advisor. The position of the latter, whose official title is Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, is not mentioned in the original legislation, and in fact the role of National Security Advisor emerged only during the Kennedy administration.

In addition to the four statutory members, the two statutory advisors on military and intelligence affairs, and the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of the Treasury is a regular attendee at NSC meetings. The Chief of Staff to the President, Counsel to the President, and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy are invited to attend any NSC meeting, while the Attorney General and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget are invited to attend those meetings that pertain to their responsibilities.

The directors of other executive departments and agencies, as well as other senior officials, are invited to attend meetings of the NSC when appropriate. Among those holding positions created by latter-day presidents: the National Economic Advisor, established by Clinton, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, a Cabinet-level post created by George W. Bush in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. The first of these directs the National Economic Council, which works closely with the NSC and with presidential advisors who report to the National Security Advisor.



Best, Richard A. The National Security Council: An Organizational Assessment. Huntington, NY: Novinka Books, 2001.

Crabb, Cecil Van Meter, and Kevin V. Mulcahy. American National Security: A Presidential Perspective. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1991.

Hillen, John. Future Visions for U.S. Defense Policy: Four Alternatives Presented as Presidential Speeches. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1998.

Leitzel, Jim. Economics and National Security. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.

Lord, Carnes. The Presidency and the Management of National Security. New York: Free Press, 1988.


National Security Council. < http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/ > (March 24, 2003).


National Security Act (1947)
National Security Advisor, United States
NSC (National Security Council), History
President of the United States (Executive Command and Control of Intelligence Agencies)

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