NSC Role In New Intelligence Order Probably* Nothing To Worry AboutNSC Role In New Intelligence Order Probably* Nothing To Worry About | The Washington Independent
OK, so about that role for the National Security Council in the updated executive order governing the intelligence community. The relevant language is this here:
1.2 The National Security Council.
(a) Purpose. The National Security Council (NSC) shall act as the highest ranking executive branch entity that provides support to the President for review of, guidance for, and direction to the conduct of all foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and covert action, and attendant policies and programs.
(b) Covert Action and Other Sensitive Intelligence Operations. The NSC shall consider and submit to the President a policy recommendation, including all dissents, on each proposed covert action and conduct a periodic review of ongoing covert action activities, including an evaluation of the effectiveness and consistency with current national policy of such activities and consistency with applicable legal requirements. The NSC shall perform such other functions related to covert action as the President may direct, but shall not undertake the conduct of covert actions. The NSC shall also review proposals for other sensitive intelligence operations.
Read with me, won’t you? So the thing about the NSC giving “direction to the conduct of all foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and covert action”? That’s new. The executive order, known as EO 12333, used to say “special activities,” never using the words “covert action” at all. On the other hand, the line that the NSC “shall not undertake the conduct of covert actions” is a pretty flat prohibition of the sort of NSC chicanery that characterized the Iran-Contra scandal. So what to make of this?
“There are interesting differences in nuance, if not in substance, between the old and new orders,” says Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, who knows more about intelligence policy than almost anyone. If anything, the stuff about policy recommendations seems to place the NSC as a check on covert ops gone wild. Steve continues in an email to me:
I believe that the sentence that you flagged – “the NSC shall perform such other functions…” – is a placeholder. It does not grant any specific authorities to the NSC, but rather announces that the President reserves the right to assign it additional authorities, currently undefined. In fact, however, he could do so anyway, without announcing it. So that line seems extraneous to me. I think they recognized that it was disturbingly vague, and so they added the bit about “shall not undertake the conduct of covert actions” to preempt concerns about the NSC’s role in potential future Iran-Contras.
So the short answer is that NSC has some explicit new review and oversight responsibilities, but its operational authorities have not changed– though they could in the future.