Macabre aspects continue to surface concerning the Sept. 11 Bengahzi events, when four Americans, including the first U.S. ambassador in more than three decades, were murdered, with less than adequate security and no aid during a seven-hour attack.
United Nations Ambassador Susan E. Rice’s withdrawal from consideration for secretary of state — before it was even offered — has not cleared the air. Nor will the missing testimony from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, now indefinitely postponed because of her illness and, perhaps, her departure shortly from office.
But speculation in the media that the president might appoint Mrs. Rice as his national security adviser dramatizes a growing constitutional issue in our national security and defense, an issue that will only further inflame Washington’s torrid politics.
One might have taken issue with the philosophy, strategies and tactics of former national security advisers such as McGeorge Bundy, Walter S. Rostow, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Allen. But their credentials for advising the president, particularly on foreign policy, were unchallengeable. Unfortunately, they have been followed by intellectual pygmies whose National Security Council duties proved much too big for them.
This metamorphosis has resulted from many trends inside the Beltway, in the nation and in an increasingly hostile world. But fundamental is Washington’s growing bureaucratization, where government service is seen as the major asset in procuring other government employment.
The NSC is a horrendous example. Originally established after World War II to independently monitor America’s new role as the globe’s only superpower and source of most funding for rehabilitation in Europe, Asia and Africa, it gravitated into the executive branch. It has become a monstrous new bureaucracy taking on a life of its own. In effect, it has become a caricature of the old “Kitchen Cabinet,” an often anonymous but highly intimate set of advisers to presidents since the 1830s.
As a kind of spigot for the enormous flow of information and decision-making that reaches the desk of the most powerful executive in the world, the NSC has become another branch of government. But, alas, it is one left out of the careful if cumbersome balance of power that the Founding Fathers constructed to impede oppressive government.
Its members, including the national security adviser himself, are exempt from legislative advice and consent to which other major figures of any administration are subjected when the president chooses to appoint them. It is no accident, as our old communist friends would have said, that John O. Brennan, the NSC’s current gray eminence, is there because, like Mrs. Rice, his proposed nomination as director of the Central Intelligence Agency would not have passed muster on Capitol Hill.
The argument that the president has the right and even an obligation to bolster his decision-making with confidential and intimate advisers is critical. But, increasingly, in the post-digital revolution age, transparency demands not only that the public know who those advisers are, but that they should operate within a constitutional framework.
Should, indeed, President Obama choose Mrs. Rice as his national security adviser, we would have the spectacle of a powerful aide who likely would have been rejected by the Senate for secretary of state being placed in a role perhaps as powerful, if not more instrumental, in making policy. That would only fuel the campaign against Mrs. Rice’s nomination by a group of senators led by John McCain, the former candidate for president and one of the Senate’s leading lights on security and foreign policy.
Whether the president thumbs his nose at the Senate with such a nomination, the very possibility caps the growing inability of the several branches of government to perform their functions cooperatively. The noisy arguments about stalemate ignore the founders’ intention, which was to set up a balance of power to avoid what they knew, rightly, as the weakness of human nature leading to tyranny.
The issue of Mrs. Rice and her qualifications for high public office are to some extent irrelevant. But the speculation about her reaching the inner circles of the White House without legislative input dramatizes and pushes forward demands for reform. It is time now for Congress to remedy this failing. The National Security Council’s senior officials must be brought into the constitutional framework and made, like other major appointments, subject to review by the nation’s elected representatives.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.