History of the United States National Security Council 1977–1981

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This article is about the history of the United States National Security Council during the Carter Administration, 1977-1981:


President Carter's goals

Jimmy Carter began his term determined to eliminate the abuses he ascribed to the Kissinger National Security Council under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He believed that Kissinger had amassed too much power during his tenure as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, and effectively shielded his Presidents from competing viewpoints within the foreign policy establishment. Carter resolved to maintain his access to a broad spectrum of information by more fully engaging his Cabinet officers in the decision-making process. He envisaged the role of the National Security Council to be one of policy coordination and research, and reorganized the NSC structure to ensure that the NSC Adviser would be only one of many players in the foreign policy process. Carter chose Zbigniew Brzezinski for the position of National Security Adviser because he wanted an assertive intellectual at his side to provide him with day-to-day advice and guidance on foreign policy decisions.

Reductions in NSC influence and staff

Initially, Carter reduced the NSC staff by one-half and decreased the number of standing NSC committees from eight to two. All issues referred to the NSC were reviewed by one of the two new committees, either the Policy Review Committee (PRC) or the Special Coordinating Committee (SCC). The PRC focused on specific issues that fell largely within the jurisdiction of one department. Its chairmanship rotated to whichever department head had primary responsibility for the issue, most often the Department of State, and committee membership was frequently expanded as circumstances warranted.

Unlike the Policy Review Committee, the Special Coordinating Committee was always chaired by the NSC Adviser. Carter believed that by making the NSC Adviser chairman of only one of the two committees, he would prevent the NSC from being the overwhelming influence on foreign policy decisions. The SCC was charged with considering issues that cut across several departments, including oversight of intelligence activities, arms control evaluation, and crisis management. Much of the SCC's time during the Carter years was spent on strategic arms issues.

President Carter changed the name of the documents in the decision-making process, although the mechanics of NSC review differed little from that of previous administrations. The Presidential Review Memorandum (PRM) replaced the National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM), and the Presidential Directive (PD) supplanted the National Security Decision Memorandum (NSDM). PRMs identified topics to be researched by the NSC, defined the problem to be analyzed, set a deadline for the completion of the study, and assigned responsibility for it to one of the two NSC committees. If the selected committee were the Policy Review Committee, a member was designated to serve as study chairman. The study chairman assigned an ad hoc working group to complete the study, which was ultimately reviewed by the responsible committee (either the PRC or SCC). When the committee was satisfied that the study had incorporated meaningful options and supporting arguments, the study's conclusions went to the President in a 2- or 3-page memorandum, which in turn formed the basis for a Presidential Directive.

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