What the National Security Council Does

Meeting of the National Security Council.
President George W. Bush meets with the National Security Council.

Smith Collection / Getty Images

The National Security Council is the most important group of advisers to the president of the United States on matters of foreign and domestic national security. The National Security Council is made up of about a dozen military and intelligence community leaders who serve as the heart of the homeland security efforts and policies in the United States.

The council reports to the president and not Congress and is so powerful that it can order the assassination of enemies of the United States, including those living on American soil.

What the National Security Council Does

The law creating the National Security Council defined its function as being

"to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and the other departments and agencies of the Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security."

The council's function is also

"to assess and appraise the objectives, commitments, and risks of the United States in relation to our actual and potential military power, in the interest of national security, for the purpose of making recommendations to the President in connection there with."

Members of the National Security Council

The law creating the National Security Council is called the National Security Act. The act set the council's membership in statute to include:

  • The president
  • The vice president
  • The secretary of the Department of State
  • The secretary of Defense
  • The secretary of the Army
  • The secretary of the Navy
  • The secretary of the Air Force
  • The Secretary of Energy
  • The chairman of the National Security Resources Board

The law also requires two advisers to the National Security Council. They are:

  • The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff serves as the military adviser to the council
  • The director of National Intelligence Services serves as the intelligence adviser to the council

The president has discretion to invite other members of his staff, administration, and cabinet to join the National Security Council. In the past, the president's chief of staff and chief counsel, the Treasury secretary, the assistant to the president for economic policy, and the attorney general have been invited to attend meetings of the National Security Council. 

The ability to invite members from outside the military and intelligence community to play a role on the National Security Council has occasionally caused controversy. In 2017, for example, President Donald Trump used an executive order to authorize his chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, to serve on the National Security Council's principals committee. The move caught many Washington insiders by surprise. “The last place you want to put somebody who worries about politics is in a room where they’re talking about national security,” former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told The New York Times. Bannon was later removed from the council.

History of the National Security Council

The National Security Council was created by the enactment of the National Security Act of 1947, which set forth a "complete restructuring of the entire national security apparatus, civilian and military, including intelligence efforts," according to the Congressional Research Service. The law was signed by President Harry S. Truman on July 26, 1947.

The National Security County was created in the post-World War II era, in part to ensure the nation's "industrial base" would be capable of supporting national security strategies and to set policy, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

National defense specialist Richard A. Best Jr. wrote:

"In the early 1940s, the complexities of global war and the need to work together with allies led to more structured processes of national security decision making to ensure that the efforts of the State, War, and Navy Departments were focused on the same objectives. There was an increasingly apparent need for an organizational entity to support the President in looking at the multiplicity of factors, military and diplomatic, that had to be faced during wartime and in the early postwar months when crucial decisions had to be made regarding the future of Germany and Japan and a large number of other countries." 

The first meeting of the National Security Council was on Sept. 26, 1947.

Secret Kill Panel on National Security Council

The National Security Council contains a once-secret subgroup that identifies enemies of the state and active militants living on American soil for potential assassination by the U.S. government. The so-called "kill panel" has been in existence since at least the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, though there is no documentation of the subgroup other than media reports based on unnamed government officials.

According to published reports, the subgroup maintains a "kill list" that is reviewed by the president or the vice president on a weekly basis. 

Reports the American Civil Liberties Union:

"There is very little information available to the public about the U.S. targeting of people far from any battlefield, so we don't know when, where, and against whom targeted killing can be authorized. According to news reports, names are added to a 'kill list,' sometimes for months at a time, after a secret internal process. In effect, U.S. citizens and others are placed on 'kill lists' on the basis of a secret determination, based on secret evidence, that a person meets a secret definition of threat."

While the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon keep a list of terrorists who are approved for potential capture or assassination, the National Security Council is responsible for approving their appearance on the kill list.

Under President Barack Obama, the determination of who was placed on the kill list was called the "disposition matrix." And the decision-making authority was removed from the National Security Council and placed in the hands of the top counterterrorism official.

A detailed report on the matrix from The Washington Post in 2012 found:

"Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it. This year, the White House scrapped a system in which the Pentagon and the National Security Council had overlapping roles in scrutinizing the names being added to U.S. target lists. Now the system functions like a funnel, starting with input from half a dozen agencies and narrowing through layers of review until proposed revisions are laid on [White House counterterrorism adviser John O.] Brennan’s desk, and subsequently presented to the president."

National Security Council Controversies

The organization and operation of the National Security Council has come under attack several times since the advisory group began meeting.

The lack of a strong national security adviser and the involvement of council staff in covert operations has been a common cause of concern, most notably under President Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal; the United States was proclaiming its opposition to terrorism while the National Security Council, under the direction of Lt. Col. Oliver North, managed a program supplying weapons to a terrorist state.

President Barack Obama's National Security Council, led by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, came under fire for its handling of the civil war in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, the spread of ISIS, and the failure to remove chemical weapons they later used against civilians.

President George W. Bush's National Security Council was criticized for planning to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein shortly after the inauguration in 2001. Bush's Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, who served on the council, was quoted as saying after leaving office: "From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country. And, if we did that, it would solve everything. It was about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it—the president saying, 'Fine. Go find me a way to do this.'"

Who Heads the National Security Council

The president of the United States is the statutory chairman of the National Security Council. When the president in not in attendance, the vice president presides over the council. The national security adviser also holds some supervisory powers, as well.

Subcommittees In the National Security Council

There are several subgroups of the National Security Council designed to handle specific issues within the nation's security apparatus. They include:

  • The Principals Committee: This committee is made up of the secretaries of the departments of State and Defense, the director of Central Intelligence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chief of staff to the president, and the national security adviser. This committee was created under President George H.W. Bush and is designed to allow the president and vice president to remain free from much of the minor policy negotiations. The Principals Committee, therefore, does not include the president or vice president; instead, it presents its work to the full National Security Council for implementation. "If the process works as intended, the president does not have to spend time on uncoordinated policy recommendations and can focus on high-level problems and those issues upon which the departments and agencies could not reach a consensus," states the National Defense University of the U.S. Department of Defense.
  • The Deputies Committee: This committee is made up of the deputy national security adviser and second-ranking officials. Among its primary responsibilities is to meet regularly during times of crisis to gather and summarize information for the president, vice president, and members of the full National Security Council. Otherwise, it evaluates policy proposal for the full council.
  • The Policy Coordinating committees:. These committees are made up of assistance department secretaries. Its role, according to presidential memorandum, is to "provide policy analysis for consideration by the more senior committees of the national security system and ensure timely responses to the president's decisions."
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Murse, Tom. "What the National Security Council Does." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/national-security-council-4140478. Murse, Tom. (2021, February 16). What the National Security Council Does. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/national-security-council-4140478 Murse, Tom. "What the National Security Council Does." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/national-security-council-4140478 (accessed March 29, 2023).