On February 13, President Obama issued a directive requiring a
review of whether the Homeland Security Council (HSC) should be
integrated with the National Security Council (NSC). In addition,
the directive looked to increasing the capacity of the White House
to manage issues during a crisis.
The directive asks the right questions, and the right answer
should strengthen the government's ability to respond holistically
to national security matters without adding bureaucracy and
over-centralization, which would hamstring Washington's capacity to
respond during a crisis.
President Obama should fold the HSC into the NSC. Doing so would
improve interagency policy planning and eliminate gaps between
efforts to address transnational security threats at home and
overseas. However, the President should not make major changes at
the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) until the Quadrennial
Homeland Security Review (QHSR) is released in December.
In addition, the President should resist the impulse to further
centralize decision-making and turn the White House into a command
post in time of crisis. Such an effort would likely make the
government less, not more, responsive to global challenges.
Time for Change
Created in 1947, the NSC serves as the principal forum for
security issues, advising the President on pressing national
security and foreign policy matters. Shortly after the 9/11
attacks, the White House created the HSC for "coordination of all
homeland security-related activities among executive departments
and agencies and [to] promote the effective development and
implementation of all homeland security policies."
An independent HSC played an important role as the federal
government reorganized its efforts to confront global terrorism and
other transnational security challenges that did not fit neatly
into categories of foreign threats or domestic concerns. Today,
however, policy-planning for homeland security has matured to the
point that a separate council is no longer essential.
The Administration would be better served by a single council
with carefully created portfolios to ensure that national security
issues are addressed in a balanced and integrated manner. The
national security advisor should have a deputy with oversight of
homeland security and disaster preparedness response. Where
possible, offices in the NSC in matters such as counterterrorism
should have transnational responsibility for overseeing policy
coordination for both domestic and foreign affairs.
Change We Can't Live With
Reforming the NSC should not lead the President to conclude that
major reorganizations are also necessary at DHS. It is premature to
consider further reorganization of the department or its missions
without a comprehensive review of what has been accomplished the
last six years, the impact of the numerous changes already on the
department by Congress, and the challenges ahead.
Any additional reforms should not be considered until after
completion of the QHSR, a mandatory assessment of the national
homeland security enterprise directed by Congress. The QHSR is to
be conducted by the DHS and its recommendations provided to
Congress by the end of 2009. The QHSR should serve as the basis for
discussing the efficacy of further reforms, including the role of
the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the organization of
national responsibilities for preparing and responding to
The White House should also demonstrate prudence and restraint
in expanding the authority and responsibility of the President's
staff. The NSC should remain focused on its primary task: Policy
coordination and providing staff advice to the President. The
Administration should resist the effort to "operationalize" the
White House by expanding its capacity to conduct crisis management
and planning day-to-day operations.
Usurping the roles and responsibilities of federal agencies will
only complicate the process of governing, obfuscate effective
congressional oversight, blur lines of authority and
responsibility, and increasingly bog the White House down in the
day-to-day affairs of managing homeland security.
Additionally, even with expanded authority and directive
control, a White House staff will be unable to deal with the rapid
changing pace and broad scope of global affairs. Rather than
streamline and integrate government activities, an operational
White House will likely become a bottleneck that hampers
innovation, imagination, and effective decentralized execution.
Instead of expanding the authority of the White House staff, the
President should be looking for solutions to make government work
better. The core of effective "whole of government" responses lies
in decentralized execution, coordinated integrated planning, and
information sharing. The focus of the White House interagency
reform effort should be in strengthening the education, training,
planning, exercising, and capacity of federal agencies to work in
an effective manner--not beefing up the White House
Responding to the President
The right answers to the President's questions on national
security reform in the White House should be clear. The President
- Merge the HSC and NSC, ensuring that the homeland security
matters are adequately represented in the reorganized staff,
- Resist the temptation to tinker with the national homeland
security enterprise or the organization and missions of DHS,
- Reject proposals to "operationalize" the White House and shift
the NSC role from policy coordination to planning and
These steps will ensure that the President has the advice and
counsel he requires to effectively address the national security
challenges of today and tomorrow.
McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas
and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, and James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant
Director of the Davis Institute and Senior Research Fellow for
National Security and Homeland Security in the Allison Center at
The Heritage Foundation.