Yesterday’s hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the question of whether to merge the White House National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council provided for a rare political science discussion with some pretty senior minds on the topic.
First Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, who also led the Office of Homeland Security, which is a sort of predecessor to the HSC, came out opposed to a merger. Fran Townsend, the first and longest serving Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, also recommended against merging her old job.
The opposition faced a difficult barrier to overcome. First, Fran Townsend has publicly described in the past that on two occasions – while serving as the head of the HSC staff – that it ought to merge with the NSC. Both National Security Advisers at the time (Condi Rice and Stephen Hadley) declined to take on the mission. Consider that, if you are Rice or Hadley, the homeland mission is viewed as second tier priority compared to NSC agenda items. Indeed, in his opening statement, Ridge acknowledged that the work of the HSC needed to be “elevated…and properly resourced.”
Another challenge contrarians had to overcome was the line of argument that the NSC would be too burdened by the expanded mission to deal with both overseas as well as domestic issues. However, both Ridge and Townsend gave impassioned explanations that the Homeland Security Advisor is unique because this position actually handles issues on both the international and domestic fields. Well, if someone can do it….
(Ranking Member Senator Collins gave a long list of reasons why she believes that a merger of the HSC and NSC would result in dangerous outcomes. She then concluded by assuring the witnesses that she approached the subject with an open mind.)
And in the other corner, Christine Wormuth and Jim Locher delivered their reasons why the shared objective (elevated, accelerated, properly resourced homeland security policy at the White House level) can be achieved more effectively if some kind of merger is undertaken to give the HSC more clout and access while modernizing what Locher described as “the legacy structures and processes of a national security system that is now more than 60 years old and no longer help American leaders formulate coherent national strategy.”
Christine focused on why the status quo isn’t working by citing a number of self-inflicted challenges. These include artificial bifurcation of national policy issues and unintended (and unwarranted) second-tier status in the interagency of the HSC staff and its work. She explained the results, but from my experience the impact is that the Defense Department almost always outweighs DHS in interagency negotiations. I had colleagues on both sides of the National Maritime Security Strategy process and DOD was always the heavyweight in an issue area that DHS out to lead in.
All witnesses sought the same ultimate outcome: The most effective White House structure to advise the President and coordinate the interagency policy execution of the homeland security mission. They just viewed different routes of getting there. It is worth noting that all but Townsend advocated for immediate change. She recommended some very important criteria to be used in determining any reforms if reform is pursued, which she believes it needn’t. Ridge actually recommended a “Reform over relocation” approach in which the Secretary of Homeland Security gets a seat on the NSC, the HSC is given more resources to staff up, the counterterrorism mission is made equal to or less than the all-hazards protection mission for the HSC.
In the end, the White House will make its decision based on its intention to achieve the same desired outcomes. Whether that comes in the form of a more unified structure that incorporates both the NSC and HSC or the more modest changes outlined by former Secretary Ridge, this will require more agreement between the Congress and President. Let’s hope a focus on the desired outcomes drives the discussion.