Fateful Decisions: Inside the National Security Council

By Karl F. Inderfurth; Loch K. Johnson | Go to book overview

PART IX
REFORMS

The President bears a special responsibility for the effective per-
formance of the NSC system.

The Tower Commission February 1987


EDITORS' INTRODUCTION

Part V of the Tower Commission's report on the Iran-contra affair, the first selection in the final section of this book, sets out "Recommendations on Organizing for National Security." The report includes several specific injunctions, including ones relating to NSC involvement in covert actions, which are designed to prevent a recurrence of the rogue operations conducted by the NSC staff during the Reagan Administration. But Part V of the commission's report does more than that.

Harry Truman immortalized a saying with a sign he had on his White House desk: "The Buck Stops Here." The Tower Commission, based not only on its inquiry into President Reagan's mishandling of the Iran-contra activities but also on its review of NSC operations over the past forty years, arrived at the same conclusion. "The President bears a special responsibility," said the commission, "for the effective performance of the NSC system." Moreover, the commission added: "A President must at the outset provide guidelines to the members of the National Security Council, his National Security Advisor, and the National Security Council staff. These guidelines, to be effective, must include how they will relate to one another, what procedures will be followed, what the President expects of them. If his advisors are not performing as he likes, only the President can intervene."

With that statement, the Tower Commission's report transcended the Iran-contra affair. It placed the responsibility for the NSC advisory system squarely on the shoulders of the president. The Commission did not search for surrogates to be held responsible for the disorders that have afflicted the NSC over the years, including the battles that have been fought between secretaries of state and national security advisers or other cabinet secretaries, with the NSC adviser often caught in the crossfire. Yes, said the commission, "If the system is to operate well, the national security adviser must promote cooperation rather than competition among himself and the other NSC principals." "But," the commission concluded, "the President is ultimately responsible for the operation of this system. If rancorous infighting develops among his principal national security functionaries, only he can deal with them … It is the President's responsibility to ensure that it does not take place."

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