The Homeland Security Council: End of an Experiment?

January 10, 2009
Original Analysis
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By M. Powell, Ph.D. –

In the past few months, the debate over the continued need to maintain a separate Homeland Security Council  (HSC) in addition to the National Security Council (NSC), and their respective staffs, has reached a crescendo. The HSC and the NSC and their staffs are supposed to work in parallel, but critics believe the organizations really do not work in concert.  They believe that the HSC is redundant and creates unnecessary organizational stovepipes as homeland security and national security are intrinsically linked and any distinctions between them are artificial. Proponents of maintaining the HSC as a distinct organization argue that homeland security issues are indeed distinct from more traditional national security issues and would lose priority in a forum such as the NSC, which has traditionally focused on external threats.  However, modern terrorism can quickly erase distinctions between external and domestic threats, and homeland security is an intrinsic part of national security.  Government organizations must recognize this and not create divisions where none should exist.

Transition Plans

The creation of the Homeland Security Council came out of the same security mindset that pervaded the country after the September 11th terrorist attacks. The notion of homeland security in terms of policy and organization became a priority within national security discourse, creating the Office of Homeland Security (OHS) and later the HSC and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The HSC was created to coordinate, among other issues, domestic policy between federal agencies and state and local entities. HSC is statutory, but its staff is not. However, since its creation, the HSC has been criticized for ambiguous and overlapping functions with the NSC, organizational stovepiping, and policy guidance to departments and agencies that conflicts or is inconsistent with policy guidance from the NSC process.

As a new President and political administration is about to take office, the issue is a priority of President elect Barack Obama’s transition team. Although this issue is likely to be formerly reviewed after the inauguration, and any dissolution of the HSC itself will have to be ultimately approved by Congress, on January 8, the New York Times reported that the transition team is in favor of disbanding or merging the position of the Homeland Security Advisor and the HSC staff into the NSC. On January 9th, media outlets announced that President elect Obama has named CIA official and past front-runner for the job as Director of the CIA, John Brennan as his pick for deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism with a dual hat as the White House Advisor for Homeland Security.

Critics of the move to subsume the HSC under the NSC fear that the homeland security missions will be undermined by the more traditional focus of the NSC on foreign policy and security threats.  Proponents of merging or subsuming the HSC into the NSC are being careful not to convey the impression that they are downgrading the importance of homeland security, but rather are streamlining all facets of national security into one cohesive council. Should a terrorist attack occur on US soil or a poor government response to a major natural disaster, it is almost guaranteed that the dissolution of the HSC will be seen as a lack of priority for homeland security.  However, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed in more detail to determine the ultimate success of such a move.


Currently, the HSC staff through the Homeland Security Advisor have direct access to the White House. The current Deputy National  Security Advisor for Counterterrorism is a dual-hatted direct report to the National Security Advisor as well as the HLS Advisor, more formally known as the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Several HSC staff members may be invited to stay, but their access may be diminished by having to go through several channels of the NSC focused on its own security priorities. According to the New York Times, the deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism, the role envisaged for John Brennan would report to incoming National Security Advisor, one level away from direct access to the White House. However, considering the complexities of Presidential advisors and reporting chains, this situation may be subject to change.

Overburdening and Coverage of Portfolios

The portfolio for counter-terrorism and homeland security is huge and diverse, and may be overly burdensome for one deputy national security advisor.  Another fear is that the NSC will simply become overburdened with such a large overall mission and either dilute its focus on major issues or prioritize its focus on particular issues, leaving other issues to fall through the cracks.  There is also a question of what will happen to specific homeland security portfolios in HSC. Who will take responsibility for the integration of federal, state, local, and tribal authorities and how will public-private partnership cooperation work especially in regards to critical infrastructure protection?

The Department of Homeland Security

Any dissolution of the HSC is bound to affect DHS as well. To some extent the HSC has functioned as an advocate for DHS. Now that DHS as an operational entity has been in existence for over five years, it is perhaps time that it can stand on its own, and it will have to without the HSC.  According to the report “World at Risk”, the Report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism,  “Now that the Department of Homeland Security is fully operational, however, the two parallel councils create ambiguity and unnecessary redundancy..” It is certainly likely that DHS will have to adjust some of its own approaches without an HSC.

Policy Coordination and Coordinators

Top level national security policy is coordinated through the Principals’ Committee, which consists of most the same people on the HSC and the NSC – the membership is virtually the same, and for big issues that involve the same agencies, it is the same.  At the Assistant Secretary level, the various Policy Coordination Committees (PCCs) that comprise both staffs are redundant, duplicative, and conflicting and inconsistent.  They can be merged to eliminate redundancy and inconsistency, and still have the same attention paid to any given regional or functional issue that the ordinary NSC process would otherwise give it.  But natural disasters, critical infrastructure protection, and vertical integration of state/local/private sector are huge issues that sometimes happen to touch on counterterrorism.  Counterterrorism (CT) itself is a huge issue that touches on the vertical issue only in terms of preparedness and response (and some prevention, but not much).  The two need coordination for purposes of keeping things from falling through cracks and making sure all are moving in one direction, but the two are profoundly different missions with profoundly different players, and it is not a natural match to bring policy coordination of all of these issues underneath one portfolio – CT policy is about strategy to destroy an adversary, mainly international.  Vertical integration, disaster preparedness, etc., is about balancing equities, many of which do not belong to the Fed government, most of which are domestic, but are agnostic about which adversary is actually doing the attacking.  All are part of national security, but expertise is vastly different.  Thus, there can be one NSC, but with several portfolios.

Plus, what about the statutorily created WMD-T Coordinator? Congress passed the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, which established the Office of the United States Coordinator for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. This Coordinator would be the principal advisor to the President on the prevention of WMD proliferation and terrorism and in charge of U.S. strategy and policy in this field. The position is still vacant but cannot be disbanded without Congressional action.  This position will directly affect the new national security structure. Will John Brennan assume responsibilities for this position as well? Or will someone else be appointed to this position and what would be the nature of the relationship with Brennan?

( original analysis)