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Fight Looms Over Size of White House National Security Staff

Would capping NSC at 50 people handicap the next president?

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, would cap the size of the National Security Council staff via a defense policy bill. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, would cap the size of the National Security Council staff via a defense policy bill. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Obama administration is fighting a House Republican effort to slash the size of the White House National Security Council staff, arguing it would severely constrain the next commander in chief.  

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry , R-Texas, with other GOP members, wants to cap the president’s national security planning staff to around 50 members, sources say. Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees have long complained the White House runs national security and foreign policy matters largely out of the West Wing, where advisers have greater influence over matters such as war strategy than Cabinet secretaries.  

But a senior administration official says cutting the NSC could prevent the next president from getting the information he or she might need from a staff that now approaches 350 people. And White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday said the proposal shows congressional Republicans are not exactly “bullish” that their party’s presidential nominee will recapture the White House.  

Thornberry in January signaled his intention to offer an NSC cut-and-cap plan. It likely will come as an amendment to his panel’s version of the fiscal 2017 defense policy bill once the measure hits the House floor. Thornberry in January warned about “NSC micromanagement” and charged some decisions were being driven by political considerations rather than security.  

“The direction comes out of the White House,” he said during a Jan. 13 speech. “The White House imposes rules of engagement upon our men and women fighting in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan that make it harder for them to succeed in their mission and, in some cases, actually increases the danger to their lives.  

“In addition, there is an unprecedented degree of micromanagement from National Security Council staffers — not only of the top management in [the Defense Department], but even of military service members in the field,” Thornberry said.  

The anticipated Thornberry amendment sets up the latest in a series of national security fights between the GOP-run committee and the Obama White House.  

“This effort would accomplish little beyond handicapping the next president by depriving that individual of resources needed to respond to an increasingly complex national security landscape,” a senior administration official said Tuesday.  

“Legislators have indicated that the NDAA would impose a personnel cap on the NSC staff at 50,” the senior official said, referring to the abbreviation for the defense policy bill. “Doing so would keep the NSC staff smaller than the [Senate Armed Services Committee’s] own staff. Apparently these lawmakers feel that they should have more national security staffers than the president of the United States.”  

The council was established by Congress in the 1947 National Security Act to provide national security and foreign policy advice to presidents. Its architects initially envisioned a group of no more than 75 staff members, according to several accounts, but presidents of both parties have swollen the size of the staff over the years.  

An aide to Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the House Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, declined to comment on whether the panel’s minority would try to kill Thornberry’s amendment on the floor.  

Ex-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is among those who have complained about President Obama’s National Security Council. (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call)

Both Republican and Democratic former administration officials have complained about Obama’s National Security Council.  

That list includes former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel. Gates is a Republican who was appointed by George W. Bush and kept on by Obama; Hagel is a former GOP senator from Nebraska; and Panetta is a longtime Democrat who was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff for nearly three years.  

Dov Zakheim, Pentagon comptroller under George W. Bush, supports Thornberry’s plan because “the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction,” with the NSC “no longer acting like the small organization it was intended to be.”  

“The NSC is under the illusion it can manage what agencies are supposed to manage,” Zakheim said Tuesday. “It was designed as a small group that would provide the president the best set of options — but now the NSC makes the options, too.”  

And John Hamre, who was deputy defense secretary under Clinton, recently published a report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies that sides with Thornberry. (Hamre is the Washington-based think tank’s president and CEO).  

“Cap the staff of the NSC at 50 people,” Hamre wrote. “You can find 50 talented individuals, but you can’t find 450,” he added, estimating the current staff size is larger than the White House says.  

“This administration really put the NSC staff on steroids,” said Gordon Adams, who oversaw national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration. “They, like no other really, wanted to bring national security and foreign policy inside the White House.”  

Adams said he hears individuals who work in national security agencies “complain about it endlessly.” Still, he warned against the Thornberry plan “setting an extremely dangerous precedent of congressional micromanagement of the NSC.”  

Adams said there is “no doubt” that military officials helped influence Thornberry’s coming plan. “The things that the military doesn’t like has a way of showing up in the Armed Services Committees — no matter if Republicans or Democrats are in charge of those committees.”  

Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, has tried to make the council staff more “lean, nimble and policy-oriented” by slashing it by 10 percent, said Edward Price, an NSC spokesman. “These measures will help to ensure the NSC staff, in coordination with (other agencies), is best positioned to implement the president’s ambitious foreign policy agenda for our remaining time in office,” Price said.  

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