For reasons that must be left to students of psychology, every Presi-
dent since Kennedy seems to have trusted his White House aides
more than his cabinet.
—Henry K. Kissinger
White House Years, 1979
In this section of the book, we look more closely at two controversies that have arisen over the performance of the NSC system. The first is related to the ongoing competition for the president's ear between the adviser and the secretary of state—often nothing less than a pitched bureaucratic battle over who will lead America's foreign policy. The second concerns the misappropriation of the NSC staff for questionable operational purposes, manifested in the Iran–contra affair during the Reagan Administration. In the more than a half-century history of the NSC, no other single event has been as damaging to the reputation of the Council and its staff as this scandal, which became the object of executive and legislative investigations in 1987. If the Cuban missile crisis was the NSC's finest hour, the Iran-contra affair was its worst.
First, we take up the conflict between the adviser and the secretary of state. The Iran–contra affair is more spectacular, with shredded documents, a long-haired beauty smuggling secret papers out of NSC files, former generals covertly selling arms to terrorists, and a self-promoting Marine lieutenant colonel on the NSC staff creating a supersecret organization ("The Enterprise") to carry out a private foreign policy contrary to the laws of Congress. Nevertheless, the tensions between the adviser and the Department of State have been more enduring and, in the minds of critics, have raised serious questions about the possible ill effects on coherent national security planning of having a competing "mini State Department" within the White House.
Leslie H. Gelb, at the time a New York Times editor, with broad experience in the government as well (and later president of the Council on Foreign Relations), has examined the NSC–State problem following Secretary Cyrus Vance's resignation from the Carter Administration (see "Why Not the State Department?" 1980, in For Further Reading). Looking back on the intramural conflicts between Vance and Brzezinski, Gelb is dismayed by the "disarray in American foreign policy" that their disagreements had engendered. The political infighting reflected, he writes, "… a replay of the historical struggle between the palace guard and the king's ministers, between any personal staff and the line officers." And at a deeper level, "it was a story about presidents, their wants and needs as they see them."