Tech Central Station
August 27, 2004
Within hours of the 9/11 Commission’s issuance of its 516 page report, Senator John Kerry charged that, were he president, he would immediately enact its recommendations down to the dot over every “i” and the cross over every “t.” Rather than responding that a president, as opposed to an absentee senator, must demonstrate responsible judgment and sober reflection, President Bush instead took the bait and allowed himself to be forced into a hasty judgment. A mere ten days after the report hit the streets — and with the Democratic National Convention having sidelined him for a week — the president said he would enact parts of the Commission’s recommendations by executive order and send up legislation calling for a watered down version of some of their other recommendations.
Senator Chuck Hagel responded that a rush to judgment on such an important issue was folly:
“We will reform our intelligence community. The responsibilities of leadership require our action. But we must not rush haphazardly through what may be the most complicated and significant government reorganization since World War II.”
Hagel is right. The 9/11 Commission was a panel consisting almost entirely of people with no expertise in intelligence gathering or analysis. Their judgments may be quite solid, but they should not be accepted as Delphic. It is the job of presidents and legislators to make judgments on such weighty matters for themselves. Blue ribbon panels are sometimes useful, but they must not become mini governments. The idea that an unelected panel should have carte blanche over something so important as reforming our national security apparatus is absurd and, frankly, a bit frightening.
Some perspective is in order. The current system, which stood the nation in good stead for over half a century, was the product of slow deliberations that was done largely out of the heat of the public spotlight, let alone the closing days of a bitter presidential campaign. The National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA, National Security Council, and what would become the Department of Defense, took years to craft and was based on input from numerous commission reports, congressional hearings, and presidential leadership.
That process began with then-Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall’s November 1943 call for a unification of the armed services into a single cabinet department. This was sparked by frustrations over the lack of cooperation and information sharing between the War Department (which housed the Army and an all-but-independent Air Force) and the Navy Department (which included then as now the Marine Corps). The plan was quite controversial within the Joint Chiefs, especially with Admirals Ernest J. King and William D. Leahy. They finally agreed to create a committee, under retired Admiral James O. Richardson, to study the issues involved. Fearing that the report would be subverted by the Navy, the War Department produced its own study and set of recommendations under the supervision of Army Chief of Staff Joseph T. McNarney. Meanwhile, Congress regained interest in the issue, with a special concern for cost savings that might be generated from a consolidation of the services, and created a special committee under Rep. Clifton A. Woodrum.
The Richardson Committee, which had been formed at the demand of the Navy in hopes of avoiding unification, surprised everyone when it reported in April 1945 that, “excepting its senior naval member [Admiral Richardson],” it was “unanimously in favor of a single department system of organization of the armed forces of the United States.” It reached this conclusion after months of meetings with the senior military officers in Washington, as well as interviews with “the principal field commanders” in the European, Mediterranean, and Pacific theaters.
Fearing that a consolidated military would diminish the role of the Navy, David L. Walsh, Chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee and Navy Secretary James Forrestal appointed Ferdinand Eberstadt, former chairman of the Army-Navy Munitions Board, to head another blue ribbon study with the purpose of finding a compromise solution. Not surprisingly, their three-volume report in September 1945 concluded that unification would not improve national security but would constitute “a dangerous experiment.”
The Eberstadt Report was not, however, simply a presentation of the Navy position; some of the conclusions presented went beyond what Forrestal would have preferred. It recommended the creation of a third military service, The Department of Air, which would consist only of the aviation assets then under the control of the War Department. It also recommended the continuation of the wartime JCS as a unity of command tool, the creation of a National Security Council and a National Security Resources Board to further ensure inter-service coordination, and a Central Intelligence Agency to continue the wartime practice of cooperation on intelligence issues. Finally, it argued for the creation of an organization to oversee the logistics functions of the various services. Because the Eberstadt Commission study was so detailed and because it broke from the previous Navy pattern of obstinate denial that there even were problems with interservice cooperation, it was well received.
The culmination of four years of commission reports, congressional debates, and interservice wrangling was the National Security Act of 1947. It followed many of the recommendations of the Eberstadt Report, creating a unified National Military Establishment with an independent Department of the Air Force, as well as a National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency. The Military Establishment was headed by a Secretary of Defense who was a member of the Cabinet, but not the head of his own department. Each of the now three services was headed by a civilian Secretary who also enjoyed Cabinet status, with the inherent ability to go over the head of the Secretary of Defense.
In addition to streamlining the military, the Act aimed at improving coordination among all executive agencies involved in the security arena. A National Security Council (NSC) was created to streamline the flow of information from the several bureaucracies responsible for the many issues related to security. The NSC created a vehicle to bring together existing agencies in a formal setting. Its statutory members are the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense with the Director of Central Intelligence and Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff as statutory advisors. Other members vary based on the desires of the president and the existing security environment but the National Security Advisor and White House Chief of Staff are always included. Below the NSC itself are the Deputies Committee and Policy Coordinating Committees, both of which consist of more junior policy experts who do most of the detailed staff work. The usage and prestige of the NSC varies based on the preference of the president, with some presidents relying quite heavily on the NSC and others preferring to rely primarily on their Secretary of State.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was created by the Act as the first peacetime civilian intelligence-gathering agency in US history. It is independent of the cabinet and headed by the Director of Central Intelligence, who is both head of the CIA and as the coordinator for all the intelligence agencies in the US government. In this latter capacity, the DCI has authority over all the intelligence assets of the Defense Department, State Department, and several independent intelligence gathering agencies. Many analysts have noted that this power is often observed only in the breach, as intelligence agencies are even more loath to share information than other bureaucracies.
Some of the Act’s provisions had to be tinkered with almost immediately. The Secretary of Defense was virtually powerless and the National Military Establishment, rather than creating a unified military, became merely another layer of bureaucracy, And instead of two service branches at the cabinet level, the new Air Force became a third. After negotiations at Key West, Florida and Newport, Rhode Island in 1948 failed to fix these problems, a 1949 amendment to the National Security Act finally stripped the service secretaries of their cabinet rank and made them subordinate to the Secretary under a new Department of Defense.
As we are sure to see with the intelligence reform process — however it turns out — changing the organizational chart will not be enough to create harmony among large bureaucracies with naturally competing interests. Even with a strong cabinet secretary in charge, the service branches have managed to this day to be quite powerful in defending their unique interests. Despite numerous congressional hearings, blue ribbon panels, executive orders, Reform Acts in 1953 and 1958, the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, and several quadrennial reviews, some of the problems identified by George Marshall in 1943 remain with us until this day.