Matters Military: National Security Reform is Dead, Long Live National Security Reform!


Last Monday I attended the valedictory “farewell” party for the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR). I was part of PNSR for the development of their first big study, “Forging a New Shield,” in 2008. Its formal closing marked a bittersweet moment. The Project succeeded in pushing the debate on national security reform in the direction of real change. Its reports are unquestionably the “most comprehensive studies of the US national security system in the nation’s history,” as PNSR President and CEO Jim Locher noted that night. But adding terms like “whole of government” and “interagency teams” to the debate still fall short of the mark of comprehensive reform of the system of departments and agencies that constitute the national security structure. Interagency teams are supposed to help produce a whole of government approach to national security issues. As things stand those terms remain terms of aspiration more than terms of description. Most interagency teams are set up as a way for one department to make sure another isn’t encroaching on its own operational territory. It’s a kind of mutual hostage taking. Members without any authority to act on behalf of their own departments act as informants to their bosses on the actions of “sister” departments.

The classic example of this is the US government’s shining jewel in the Drug War, the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC). The FBI, DEA, Customs, ATF, etc. all have members posted to EPIC. But there is no positive coordination of operations across agencies. What there is is a de-conflicting of potentially overlapping (read, infringing on my turf) operations. And while this isn’t, per se, bad it also isn’t the same thing as a coordinated strategy to strangle supply or dampen the violence. De-confliction is a strategy for protecting agency prerogatives, and in turn, budgets. That’s not the idea behind a whole of government approach.

PNSR produced case studies on national security issues spanning 60 years. What it found was this:

  1. The national security system incentivizes strong departments and agencies while undermining interagency efforts.
  2. Budgets are set by the narrow core mandates of each department or agency, not by national missions. In other words, departments and agencies largely work for themselves, not the nation.
  3. The only way to get integration across agencies is for the White House to focus attention on an issue and force interagency cooperation. But doing so repeatedly overburdens the White House, forcing the NSC to focus on day-to-day crises and to neglect long-term, strategic planning.
  4. The way Congress allocates budgets and conducts oversight reinforces the problems identified above.

This is a deeply broken system. The modern US national security establishment was built around the 1947 National Security Act. It was a system designed to operate in the environment of the Cold War. The threats the US faces today are vastly different from 1947. More importantly, the world the US security establishment works in is vastly different. It can’t keep approaching problems with the same logic.

But for reform to work it can’t be piecemeal. The whole system needs to be retooled to reflect the present-day and the anticipated future.

Not the past.

Monday’s event celebrated some very real achievements. But the necessary change is still a long way off. The problems PNSR identified are as endemic today as they were on 9/11. As the former Commander-in-Chief of US Special Operations, Gen. Wayne Dowing, has noted, “the interagency system has become so lethargic and dysfunctional that it inhibits the ability to apply the vast power of the US. . . . You see this in our operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan, across our foreign policy, and in our response to Katrina.” That’s a damning statement. (For the full Congressional hearing click here.)

There is one bright note, however. Both the Senate and the House have passed bills out of committee that would enact one of the central recommendations of PNSR. The Interagency Personnel Rotation Act would force agencies to take cooperation more seriously by requiring that some high-level positions be filled only with candidates who have worked in several interagency positions. But the bill is only a pilot project at this point. System-wide reform is still years or decades off.

That’s a long time in national security terms. A system designed to operate against a long-dead Soviet threat is not just inefficient, it’s a serious danger. I just hope Locher and the others are justified in their optimism that change is coming, because it can’t come too soon.

Matters Military is a regular forum for linking discussions of foreign policy to the realities of the military as the instrument of much of its implementation.

In addition to the author’s own views, this forum will feature guest commentary and interviews. The views expressed are entirely those of Dr. Schmidt or his guest contributors. The views expressed in this forum are not endorsed by the US Army, the Department of Defense or the US government.