Obama Mulls Fate of Homeland Security Council

By Joseph Straw

With President Barack Obama set to unveil a reformed and expanded National Security Council (NSC), senators Thursday heard arguments over whether the panel should absorb the White House's fledgling Homeland Security Council (HSC).

President George W. Bush established the HSC soon after 9-11 with a structure based on the NSC to advise him on issues including counterterrorism and domestic preparedness. Government scholars, however, argue that the  two-council system is illogical and ineffective.

In Sunday’s Washington Post, National Security Advisor Gen. Jimmy Jones shared the administration’s more holistic model for the National Security Council, considering issues such as energy, cybersecurity, and climate change. Obama is expected to issue a directive instituting changes within days.

The fate of the HSC, however, may not be decided for a couple months. John Brennan, who is Jones’ deputy and Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security advisor, is considering options, the Post reported.

In the run up to this year’s presidential transition, a handful of Washington think tanks called for consolidation of the HSC into an expanded NSC. An expert from one of those groups, Christine E. Wormuth of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), testified on the topic before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Wormuth argued that the two-council approach unnaturally separates issues that are inherently intertwined, such as foreign and domestic threats. She blamed the HSC’s perceived weakness on both cultural and fiscal factors. Without its own budget, the HSC’s staff is roughly one-fifth the size of the NSCs and staff pay is lower. While the NSC’s staff consists almost exclusively of subject matter experts and seasoned professionals, HSC’s staff has seen more political hires.

Wormuth recommended a NSC with two deputy directors, one responsible for international affairs and the other for domestic affairs. Both she and fellow witness James R. Locher III of the Project on National Security Reform said that  Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano should be invited to all regular NSC meetings.

Yet fellow witness Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, argued that the HSC is critical, and its mission is in fact far different from that of the NSC. While the NSC was established with a focus on military affairs and diplomacy, the homeland security mission is to prevent, prepare for, and respond to all hazards while mitigating their effects, Ridge said.

The problems that hobbled the HSC during its first seven years can be solved with added funding and hiring of qualified staff with real-world experience in law enforcement, emergency management, and intelligence analysis, Ridge testified.

The hearing's fourth witness, Bush Administraiton Homeland Security Advisor Frances Fragos Townsend, did not volunteer her specific position on the HSC, but advocated for a single advisor accountable for appraising the president of all threats. That advisor, she said, must have both adequate staff and direct access to the president.

The National Defense Act of 1947 established the NSC under President Harry Truman, along with the Department of Defense, the Air Force, and the CIA. The president chairs the NSC, although its composition and role vary by administration. Obama’s NSC consists of Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and Jones. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serves as the NSC’s military advisor, while Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair is its intelligence advisor.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the Department of Homeland Security, also codified the HSC.


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