When national security meets government bureaucracy

By Gordon Adams | September 18, 2007

Too often Washington confronts its national security challenges by installing a “czar” to knock heads and inspire collaboration among government agencies. Here’s why that approach doesn’t work.

As part of their report card on how we’re responding to 9/11, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean
and Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center, recently proposed that we appoint a
“nuclear nonproliferation czar” to the White House. In their view, nuclear terrorism is the most
frightening security threat the nation faces. According to Kean, “It may not be the most likely
event, but it’s certainly the scariest.”

The proposal, similar to one made eight years ago by the Commission to Assess the Organization
of the Federal Government to Combat the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, or
CAOFGCPWMD, which may represent a Guinness World Record for acronym length, highlights the most
obvious problem confronting Washington’s national security process: Faced with a growing agenda of
national security issues that cut across departmental boundaries, we’re incapable of setting clear
national priorities and providing cross-agency guidance and budget discipline when enforcing

We face bewildering challenges today–proliferation of nuclear technology, terrorism, energy
dependencies, global poverty, failed or recovering states, ethnic and religious conflict, drug,
human, and arms trafficking, infectious disease, and global warming. All of these challenges
involve more than one agency’s programs, but our foreign policy and national security agencies
still operate in their own stovepipes. And every time we encounter a major priority that more than
one agency needs to handle (terrorism, proliferation, drug trafficking) we take up our
ad hoc cudgel.

First, we create an interagency working group to coordinate our way out of the problem. When
that inadequately addresses the overlaps, program gaps, and coordination failures of the executive
departments, we look for a “czar”–a prominent individual placed inside the White House who will
untangle the mess and knock heads to make sure coordination works.

The effectiveness of such czars is checkered. Perhaps the most familiar is the “drug czar” at
the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which was created by statute in 1988 to “direct
the nation’s anti-drug efforts and establish a program, budget, and guidelines for cooperation
among federal, state, and local entities.”

ONDCP isn’t a failure, but despite spending billions of dollars, drugs continue to be imported
and consumed in the United States in large volume, and agencies across government pursue their own
preordained anti-drug strategies, which ONDCP tends to aggregate rather than create. To my
knowledge, the drug czar has exercised the statutory authority to decertify an agency budget for
drug-control programs only once. The resulting fracas was so poisonous that the authority was never
exercised again.

ONDCP wasn’t the first try at a czar system. The National Security Council (NSC) was an early
effort to end turf struggles over national security policy. Less effectively, the National Economic
Council, the Homeland Security Council, and the Council on Environmental Quality all represent
efforts to provide central direction, eliminate overlaps, and cover program gaps in executive
branch agencies. One of the most ambitious attempts is the ongoing effort to set counterterrorism
strategic priorities. Established under the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act, the National
Counterterrorism Center, which reports to the president and director of national intelligence, is
tasked with formulating a cross-agency counterterrorism strategy and, more importantly, telling the
agencies how to implement it. This (classified) guidance is loosely coordinated with central budget
planning at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to ensure that the necessary resources are
included. Unfortunately, agency personnel seem scornful of the plan and suggest off-the-record that
they’re basically ignoring it.

Coordination is hard to achieve in the executive branch, and it’s not clear if naming a czar for
whatever issue dominates the day will change that reality. Moreover, locating that czar in one
department is especially difficult when other (separate but equal) departments decide to defend
their turf. The underlying problem is that our national security challenges don’t match the
government’s structure. There are two possible solutions for this dilemma: (1) Abolish the
organizations and start over (sensible, but unlikely); or (2) change the way we plan overall
national security strategy, guidance, and budgets.

The solution may reside in the latter approach. It would mean providing more responsibility,
authority, and skills to the current central planning institutions–NSC and OMB. It would mean
institutionalizing that responsibility by requiring NSC and OMB to carry out a quadrennial national
strategy review (QNSR), similar to the Quadrennial Defense Review carried out by the Defense
Department and would set the priorities for national security policy.

It would also mean establishing a mandatory process to implement that strategy through a
biennial National Security Planning Guidance (NSPG). This classified guidance, provided by NSC and
OMB, but with the participation of other agencies involved in national security, would focus on the
key priorities of national security policy–for example, counterterrorism, poverty reduction,
post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization, or democracy promotion. It would fill gaps and
eliminate unneeded overlaps in program coverage and direct agencies to emphasize certain activities
and programs over others. It would link strategy and policy designers with budgetary enforcers in a
joint exercise to ensure agencies coordinated and prioritized the selected activities. However, it
would require skills neither organization possesses at the moment–long-term program planning at
NSC, long-term program analysis at OMB, and dedicated performance evaluators at both.

The key to this reform is that it would be enshrined in law, making it less susceptible to the
whims of a particular administration. Some administrations would do it well and others poorly, but
it would always be required. For all of its weaknesses, the Pentagon’s Planning, Programming,
Budgeting System (PPBS) works because it survives the ineptitude of most administrations. An
institutionalized QNSR/NSPG process could do the same.

It would have a distinct advantage over the czar model. The process wouldn’t have to be
recreated with each new issue, reigniting turf battles that are omnipresent. As with PPBS and the
armed services, agencies might get used to it and decide to “play the game.” Because the process
would prioritize certain issues, it could focus on Hamilton and Kean’s nonproliferation agenda but
have continuity once a solution took hold or the issue dissipated.

This reform would require deeper elaboration and thought. It would require agencies to rethink
how they organize themselves, plan strategy, and assemble budgets. But it means taking the
cross-agency character of today’s national security challenges seriously. Doing business the
old-fashioned way with a paper czar and stovepiped agencies will condemn much of our national
security strategy to failure.

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