National Security Reform for a New Era: An Agenda for Policymakers

Reassessing the National Security Act of 1947: Roadmap to Reform

The year 2017 marked the 70th anniversary of the National Security Act of 1947. To commemorate the landmark legislation that powerfully shaped the American national security enterprise, over 60 prominent scholars, practitioners, and national security experts gathered at the United States Military Academy over the course of two years to consider national security reform in the modern era. In April 2016, the group examined how the world has changed since the end of the Second World War and, building upon those discussions in April 2017, endeavored to develop specific, actionable recommendations for reforming our national security institutions and processes.

The recommendations in this report do not represent consensus among all participants. National security reform is inherently complex and contentious, and the final recommendations reflect only a portion of the vibrant debate among a diverse group of experts. The compiled report provides nine succinct policy recommendations across three broad topics, including the role of the legislative branch in national security, promoting strategic foresight within our national security institutions, and developing a surge capacity in response to unanticipated security crises.

Congress and National Security

Many experts perceive the legislative branch to have acquiesced to a weakening role in national security policy making and oversight. The absence of concentrated power in the U.S. government is by design; the Framers divided the powers of governance among the branches to ensure that no single person or group could dominate national policy, and especially national security. The United States Constitution grants specific powers to the legislative branch in this domain, including war powers, control over revenue and spending, and oversight prerogatives. Originally established as America’s “First Branch” by the Framers, Congress has historically wielded these powers in tandem with the executive branch to inform and shape national security policy.

The steady rise of executive branch power relative to the legislature, common during periods of national crisis, along with the severe erosion of bipartisan cooperation in policy that extends beyond the “water’s edge,” has complicated that constitutional relationship. U.S. national security policy demands are profound, and the legislature appears resigned to a secondary role in addressing those demands.

Focusing specifically on the role of Congress in national security, three factors make it especially difficult for the legislative branch to lead: 1) the structure of the congressional committee and staff system that hobbles efforts to keep pace with the demands of policy in a rapidly changing international security environment; 2) the dual impact of the increased ability of constituents to stay informed of actions taken by their legislators and the rise of party polarization; and, potentially a result of the first two factors, 3) the misalignment of constituents’ interests with membership on congressional committees that deal most directly with security policy. Collectively, these realities suggest barriers that impede Congress and also help to explain why members of the legislative branch may have neither the tools necessary to exert greater influence nor the inclination to attempt to do so. Discussions among policy experts, however, reveal the shared belief that the authority and means to address these issues still remain in the hands of the men and women of America’s First Branch..

Recommendations for Reform

Institute formal education for Members and committee staff on national security committees. Only a small subset of the legislative community is focused on oversight of the national security apparatus. At a perennial information disadvantage, congressional committees and their staffs are inundated with detailed reporting from executive agencies that is impossible to review, evaluate, and assess in the time available. A robust and formal national security and defense education program once existed for members of Congress and congressional staff, upon which a future program could be modeled. To encourage a more active and visible role in oversight, an institute for members, selected on the basis of demonstrated interest, would provide comprehensive education and training on national security strategies and global issues. The program would include techniques to achieve parsimony and prioritization among competing national security imperatives, refocus congressional committees on the most important questions about national security policy, and reclaim the legislative branch’s Article I responsibilities.

Build an equivalent to the Congressional Budget Office for national security.  Create a prestigious congressional research office unconstrained by partisan influence to provide “scores” on various dimensions of national security for disparate policy options. The suggested blueprint for this office is the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). This organization would provide the means for Congress to compare and contrast recommendations for national security developed by the executive branch. The charter of the existing Congressional Research Service may be an appropriate vehicle to provide increased support for evaluating national security policy options.

Create a Select Committee on National Security Affairs as part of a broader reorganization of congressional committee structure. Currently, congressional committees provide inputs to the national security process according to each committee’s jurisdictional control, leading to a fractured approach to national security. A Select Committee on National Security Affairs that provides oversight and responsibility of the joint space between Congress and the executive branch would improve focus on a whole-of-government national security policy instead of narrowly defined priorities. Despite the massive reorganization of the executive branch in the wake of 9/11, the legislative branch has yet to undertake a corresponding change to better fulfill its oversight and resourcing role. The existing imbalance could provide an impetus for congressional reform on national security.

Planning for the Future While Managing the Present

Policy officials in the U.S. government struggle to find the time and space to engage in strategic thinking and forecasting while simultaneously managing current and unanticipated crises. Ideally, our national security professionals consider the future routinely and predict actions required today to prepare for the challenges of tomorrow. Adherence to this ideal is the exception.  

Islands of strategic activity do exist within the defense community and other national security agencies, such as the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futures Assessment Division and the U.S. Coast Guard’s Evergreen program, but efforts to connect and integrate these islands are stymied by the risk of politicization, disproportionate influence by the defense community, and a disconnect between public and private incentives. Strategic foresight and planning is often perceived to be a superfluous luxury within government agencies, given the limits of prediction and the tyranny of the present day among decision makers.

Critical to navigating these risks successfully is a professional ethic among sectors of the national security community and cultivation of professional military and civilian national security intellectuals. Leaders within national security agencies who can articulate priorities and tradeoffs, manage risk, and overcome institutional resistance to thinking about the future are necessary to change the prevalent culture. In particular, greater attention and better processes would be useful to shift attention to profound, strategic issues and away from the merely immediate and urgent.

Recommendations for Reform

Identify and strengthen authorities and responsibilities for planning between existing but dispersed communities of strategic forecasters. Uniting islands of strategic forecasters within the national security community is a first step toward promoting a national security culture that values the activity of thinking about the future. Shared expertise, best practices, and an expanded network of forecasting tools, models, and ideas will generate momentum within executive agencies that struggle to prioritize intellectual bandwidth to consider the future and its accompanying threats and opportunities.

Establish a whole-of-government program of interagency exchanges for national security professionals. The capacity for strategic foresight requires a community of agile thinkers sufficiently isolated from the crisis of the day and familiar with the national security community as a whole. In order for strategic planners to take foresight and long-range futures into account when advising senior leaders on potential policy options, they should be provided opportunities to improve their capabilities through education, training, experience, and immersion in multiple agencies, think tanks, or academic institutions. Equipped with broader skills and perspectives, planners are the ideal members of interagency teams focused on strategic foresight tied to current national security decision making.

Integrate strategic planners with national security decision makers. Strategic foresight will never approach parity with crisis management without the attention, organizational discipline, and influence of decision makers. From personnel management decisions that recognize the contributions of strategic forecasters to prioritizing resources to address future challenges, leaders must consciously inculcate a culture that values thoughtful and comprehensive consideration of the future. Leaders must apply ways and means to the concept of the future to create strategy.

Creating Surge Capacity for Dynamic Threats

The contemporary security environment is characterized by dynamism and complexity, forcing the United States to confront an array of diverse and non-traditional threats in addition to conventional, state-based security competition. However, non-traditional threats can be difficult to predict and, when they emerge, require multidimensional responses that challenge existing government structures and authorities. Devising an architecture that enables a surge capacity reduces risk by providing a rapid and effective response to emerging threats that does not currently exist in a systemic way across the national security enterprise.

Examples of scenarios that would require a short-term surge capacity, meaning an ad-hoc team of experts who do not habitually work together in the absence of crisis, include natural disasters, state failure of an ally or a WMD-capable state, asymmetric conflict with a cyber adversary, a mass casualty situation due to a major biological pathogen, or a comprehensive power grid failure. Ultimately, attempts to pre-determine authorities, roles, and responsibilities for all organizations and scenarios would require an unrealistic investment of time and resources.

However, executive responsibilities, authorities, and incentives can be aligned to drive cooperation, reduce response time in the event of a crisis, and develop networks that can be exercised during a surge by the national security community and its partners.

Recommendations for Reform

Develop public-private partnerships in advance of crises. Public-private memorandums of understanding, synchronized cooperation between government agencies, and updated protocols for unanticipated crises are already largely implemented among agencies responding to natural disasters, but this model is not widespread within the national security community. Repeated wargaming and planning for contingencies that seem unlikely to materialize is nevertheless a useful and productive exercise, as developing personal relationships and networks will reduce friction in the event of a surge. As a potential model, the much-lauded Interagency Zombie Task Force developed by the Center for Disease Control is one creative initiative resulting in increased surge capacity and pre-existing public-private relationships in the event of a health crisis. The Department of Defense’s model of joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational task forces provide a similar template for employing diverse teams in support of organizational planning and execution.

Reform the military personnel system to permit lateral entry from the civilian workforce. Internationally, the Department of Defense holds primary responsibility for surging in response to dynamic threats. The Department of Defense is expeditionary by design, with unparalleled ability to mass and project power globally. What expertise it lacks must be more easily acquired from the civilian sector and incorporated into the military’s structure as a matter of routine. Specialized personnel programs that permit lateral entry from the civilian sector will help the Department of Defense recruit and retain a wider array of talents in its active, National Guard, and Reserve components.

Develop incentives for national service. National service can assume many forms. Americans possess skills that could be used across all imaginable sectors in the event of a national security crisis. Incentivizing private citizens’ connection to their broader community will not only help Americans feel more invested in their country, but will create a network of capacity that will contribute to the overall strength of the nation.

A Call to Action

This brief guide to reform is intended to promote further discussion among decision makers within the national security community and those in a position to generate momentum and change. Over the past 70 years, our national security institutions have withstood numerous tests of process and spirit. But perennial debates over the topics included here merit action by the current generation of leaders to keep our institutions ready and capable. We encourage all those in a position to influence or initiate change within the national security enterprise to consider taking steps to implement the agenda for national security reform.

Heidi B. Demarest, a U.S. Army officer, and Erica D. Borghard, an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, are the editors of this report. The recommendations expressed herein are the result of an April 2017 conference on the National Security Act of 1947 held at the United States Military Academy. This report will appear in an a forthcoming edited volume on national security reform to be published by Routledge. The opinions within this report do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or any other government agency.

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Header Image: President Harry S. Truman is seated at his desk in the Oval Office, signing H.R. 5632, the National Security Act Amendments of 1949, which converted the National Military Establishment into a new Department of Defense and made other changes in the national security system. (Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/Harry S. Truman Library & Museum)


This guide is based on three days of discussion in April 2017 at West Point, New York about the National Security Act of 1947 and areas of potential reform. The following individuals participated in the conversation that contributed to the proposed agenda. As noted, participation does not necessarily indicate agreement with the report in its entirety.

Mr. Robert Andy
Audia Group

Colonel Susan Bryant
National Defense University

Lieutenant General (Ret.) Mick Bednarek
Former Chief, Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq

Dr. Erica Borghard
U.S. Military Academy

Ms. Rosa Brooks
Georgetown University

Dr. Joseph Collins
National War College

Lieutenant Colonel Heidi Demarest
U.S. Military Academy

Mr. John Doyon
National Counterterrorism Center

Ms. Jen Easterly
Morgan Stanley

Mr. Jason Forrester
Jason Forrester Consulting

Lieutenant Colonel Joe Funderburke
U.S. Special Operations Command

Hon. Chris Gibson
Former U.S. Representative

Lieutenant Colonel Scott Handler
U.S. Military Academy

Brigadier General Diana Holland
U.S. Military Academy

Colonel Patrick Howell
Duke University

General (Ret.) Charles Jacoby
USMA Modern War Institute

Ms. Katherine Kidder
Center for a New American Security

Major General Paul LaCamera
XVIII Airborne Corps

Dr. Hugh Liebert
U.S. Military Academy

Ambassador Douglas Lute
Former U.S. Representative to NATO

Colonel Suzanne Nielsen
U.S. Military Academy

Mr. Neilesh Shelat
U.S. Agency for International Development

Dr. Rachel Sondheimer
U.S. Military Academy

Mr. Bill Sutey
Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence

Colonel Heidi Urben
Joint Staff

Colonel (Ret.) Isaiah Wilson III
The George Washington University

Colonel Stephanie Ahern
National Security Council Staff

Hon. John Brennan
Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

Mr. George Beach
Superintendent, New York State Police

Dr. Jessica Blankshain
U.S. Naval War College

Dr. Meena Bose
Hofstra University

Lieutenant General Robert Caslen
U.S. Military Academy

Colonel Liam Collins
U.S. Military Academy

Dr. Jason Dempsey
Center for New American Security

Ms. Malia Du Mont
Bard College

Brigadier General (Ret.) Kim Field
Creative Associates International

Dr. Linda Fowler
Dartmouth College

MG Anthony German
Adjutant General, New York National Guard

Dr. Austen Givens
Utica College

Dr. Kathleen Hicks
Center for Strategic and International Studies

Dr. Richard Hooker, Jr.
National Security Council Staff

Hon. Steven Israel
Former U.S. Representative

Brigadier General Cindy Jebb
U.S. Military Academy

Dr. Margaret Kosal
Georgia Institute of Technology

Dr. Richard Lacquement, Jr.
U.S. Army War College

Hon. James Locher III
Joint Special Operations University

Dr. Daniel McCauley
National Defense University

Dr. Jon Rogowski
Harvard University

Dr. Scott Silverstone
U.S. Military Academy

Dr. Douglas Stuart
Dickinson College

Hon. Frances Townsend
Former Homeland Security Advisor

Mr. Ian Wallace
New America