The White House acknowledged Monday, at least indirectly, that its vast National Security Council staff, the subject of considerable criticism both within and outside the administration, has grown unwieldy and could use some streamlining.
“To ensure the NSC staff is a lean, nimble, and policy-oriented organization, we are reversing the trend of growth . . . to align our staffing with our strategic priorities,” NSC Chief of Staff Suzy George said in a statement posted on a White House blog Monday evening.
She noted that growth has occurred “across successive administrations” and said that “this is not about downsizing for its own sake; it’s about gradually right-sizing the NSC staff.”
George did not indicate the current size of the staff, but many outside estimates put it at 400, about twice the size it was at the end of the George W. Bush administration.
Officials emphasized that there is no numerical goal and that any reductions will come primarily from attrition. The NSC staff normally has a rapid turnover rate, as personnel from Cabinet departments, including the State, Defense and Justice departments as well as the intelligence agencies, rotate through White House assignments.
George’s statement, along with the comments of two senior officials authorized to discuss the internal initiative on the condition of anonymity, did not reveal specific changes but rather spoke of “reforms” that will not be readily apparent to outside observers.
“Taken together,” the statement said, “they are designed to result in fewer, more focused meetings, less paper to produce and consume, and more communication that yields better policymaking.”
Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, held a town hall meeting with the NSC staff two weeks ago to explain the changes.
“People looking from the outside are not going to see a whole lot of moving of boxes” on the NSC organizational chart, one official said. “Hopefully . . . over time, colleagues will feel and see the difference in just how the [NSC] is running, an NSC which is leaner.”
The initiative follows public criticism of what former defense secretaries Robert M. Gates and Leon Panetta, who also served as CIA director, have called “micro-managing” by the White House of issues large and small. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is a frequent critic of what he has called “the insular and indecisive White House national security team.”
Internally, across departments and agencies outside the White House, senior officials have complained about slow decisions, too many meetings, and an agency that has undermined policymaking and morale.
Much of the staff growth came early in Obama’s first term, when Bush’s homeland security council — formed as a separate White House entity after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — was merged with the NSC.
A technical staff that responds to a news cycle that has accelerated with digital media and the Internet also has grown significantly.
NSC directorates dealing with the Middle East and other troubled regions have expanded as units have been added to deal with cybersecurity and other issues. No process has been in place to shrink or eliminate workforces and directorates after crises have passed.
Late last year, Rice assembled her own senior staff and ordered members to gather information about who was on the staff and to tell the directorates that “we need to reverse the trend in growth in a way that does not undercut advancing our priorities . . . not just an across-the-board cut for a quota,” said an official who participated in the process.
Rice aides reached out to senior officials at State, Defense and other departments for suggestions on how the White House could do better.
At the time, one official said, Cabinet secretaries and their deputies were being hit by a “confluence of several things requiring a look at a high level at the same time,” including expansion of the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations, as well as Ukraine and the domestic surveillance controversy.
“We have only a finite number of Cabinet secretaries and deputies, and in addition to getting together to forge strategies, [they] carry the burden of implementing,” one official said. “How do you rationalize the time to enable them to do all these things at the same time, in periods of sustained activity?”
Several high-level departmental officials, contacted for their reaction, responded with the verbal equivalent of an eye roll, but said they were glad to see the effort being made. None agreed to be quoted.
“This administration’s 4th quarter has only just begun,” George said in her statement, “and as President Obama likes to say, he’s a ‘4th quarter player.’ Driving the President’s ambitious national security agenda through January 20, 2017 requires an NSC staff that’s firing on all cylinders.”