You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Cleaning House

Bush bungled our national security infrastructure. Here's how to fix it--without making the same mistakes.

In 1947, in the wake of the Second World War, a new national security structure for the U.S. government was designed to help meet the rising specter of the Cold War. In a single stroke, we created the Department of Defense, the CIA, the National Security Council (NSC), and the Department of the Air Force. This transformation, coming in the form of the National Security Act of 1947, set the basic structure of the government on security issues for over half a century.

In the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration undertook its own sweeping redesign of the national security structure in order to shift its focus to combating terrorism. In rapid succession, the administration introduced the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Homeland Security Council, the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and an upgraded Counter-Terrorism Center to coordinate our actions against a perceived new enemy.

Now that the Bush worldview has largely been discredited, many are calling for yet another sweeping reform to fix the inadequacies of Bush’s system. In March of this year, Senator Joseph Biden called for a “2009 National Security Act.” In hearings a month later, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified as to the importance of considering “how to restructure the national security apparatus of the government for the long term.” The non-partisan Project on National Security Reform has announced that it will release a report in the coming weeks suggesting a similar overhaul of the system.

The impulse to fix what is broken is worthy and urgently called for. But if the successes of the sound structure created in 1947 and the failures of the organizational and policy shambles created by the Bush administration teach us anything, it is that a sweeping re-organization is almost certainly not at this delicate moment the best way to achieve the changes we need most. It took decades to refine and enhance the 1947 structure, with key changes coming as late as the ‘80s. We are still grappling with the haphazard assembly of the DHS and the extended and costly process of integrating disparate agencies into a working whole. The DNI now has a bureaucracy of over 1,500 people tasked with “streamlining” communications and coordination in the intelligence community.

With the next president facing two wars, a national recession, a global downturn, a housing crisis, a banking crisis, and the need for transformational policies in energy, the environment, health care, social security, education, infrastructure, taxes, and government spending, the last thing he needs is to be distracted by a major revision of the U.S. government’s organizational chart. That’s not to say that there is not an enormous amount of waste in the government, and that many redundancies can be eliminated or that coordination could not be better improved. But as illustrated by the multi-year saga of attempting to make the Department of Homeland Security out of disparate pieces of the other agencies, the bureaucratic exercise of building and creating new departments often overtakes the policy objective for a period of years that we can ill afford to waste in the current environment. Furthermore, many of the core criticisms of the current structure--such as those cited in the Congressional Research Service’s spring 2008 report on the subject, including “civilian agency capacity is too limited,” “DOD role is too large,” coordination is insufficient, decision-making is not rigorous, and resources don’t match strategies--don’t actually require reorganization; they require informed and disciplined leadership.

Rather than revamping the current system, the next president can go a long way toward revitalizing the national security apparatus by simply following the contours outlined by the 1947 act, which was borne of the desire to avoid or manage inter-departmental rivalries. It has done so effectively when presidents--like George H.W. Bush and his team, to cite one example--asserted the coordinating primacy of his national security advisor and staff. The Bush administration, however, has allowed the vice president’s office and that of the previous secretary of defense to operate outside the traditional, consultative NSC process, cutting out or ignoring dissenting views within the State Department, intelligence community, and military.

There are also concrete things the next president can do within the existing system to reform the national security apparatus. He can change the structure of the White House staff, which is critical to coordinating the other agencies of the government. For example, he could easily fold the Homeland Security Council back into the NSC, where it belongs, or he could reduce the bloat and mission creep at the DNI. He could also instruct his national security advisor to focus on his key priorities and shift away from the Bush NSC’s Iraq-centric focus. Most importantly, the president determines what policy priorities and people get his and his team’s time and attention, and how assets are allocated. He will be crucial, for example, in shifting the defense establishment away from the “permanent war” funding philosophy which has guided the country for six decades and still has us outspending the rest of the world combined on defense.

And as America’s national security priorities shift away from the post-9/11 singular focus on terrorism, perhaps the most significant change the next president can quickly make is to raise the profile of the Department of Energy within the national security establishment. The department has existed, largely underutilized and often ignored, since the 1970s. But it is where many of the country’s greatest security challenges will intersect, particularly the need for a committed, urgent move away from dependency on foreign oil. The department is home to the national energy laboratories that can be the centerpiece of the national effort to wean the country off of fossil fuels. It will be essential to the energy diplomacy that will be so important in the decades ahead--for example, working together with countries like China to make carbon capture and sequestration a reality. The department also has a central role to play in our heretofore-unsuccessful efforts to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons technologies worldwide--a critical component of our national security strategy. Our next president can empower the department to address these challenges by promoting those who run it to a leading role in the new administration, within the National Security Council, and on the daily schedule of the president.

Reformers should also look outside the bounds of the executive branch if they really want to improve the national security capabilities of the U.S. government. Budgetary turf battles in Congress perpetuate the stove-piping and wasteful spending that produce lack of coordination and inefficiencies. For example, as members of the 9/11 Commission noted, the complex structures on the Hill meant to oversee the intelligence community were misaligned, resulting in committees with responsibility for shaping priorities not being the committees responsible for setting budgets. Furthermore, many of the greatest challenges we face, ranging from combating bioterror to nation-building, require private sector or NGO know-how that will demand new public-private partnerships rather than new public structures.

We are fortunate to have, since 1947, a national security structure that is flexible and designed to evolve based on the direction the president wants to take it. Therefore, tempting as remaking the institutions of government sounds, there is a world of urgent priorities to which we should attend before we get into another round of time-consuming, costly, and, as we have discovered recently, often counter-productive bureaucratic shuffling. In short, far more than we need a new National Security Act, we need a new president with a clear set of priorities for the current and emerging global security environment.

David Rothkopf is the author of Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power and, most recently, of Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They are Making. He is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

By David Rothkopf