WASHINGTON — The White House handling of the Iranian arms-sales blunder has led to talk of curbing the power of the National Security Council staff. If this means restrictive legislation, it is a bad idea and it won't work. The President needs a national-security adviser who can give him advice without being encumbered by formal reporting requirements to Congress. But the President should have a stronger, more effective staff capable of implementing a coherent foreign policy, for two reasons: the President himself and the changing role of the United States in the world.
The intricacies of foreign policy, especially in an area so laden with Machiavellian undercurrents as the Middle East, has never been the President's strong point. Even if George P. Shultz were given more formal power in the decision-making process, he cannot, from his office, be President Reagan's alter ego all the time. The job of secretary of state is to run foreign policy on a day-to-day basis and, in this capacity, he is often out of the country, sometimes for weeks on end. Yet the President must have immediate access to the best possible advice on all national-security matters, including those not formally under State Department control--for example, military and intelligence matters. It is the prerogative of the President to make foreign policy and to override subordinates if he sees fit.
The President must be able to organize the White House the way he wants. His advisers must be able to act on occasion without going through normal channels, provided no laws are violated. All modern Presidents have used their staffs for sensitive missions--as distinct from operations--and should continue to do so. If Congress were to introduce new laws constricting the NSC adviser, the President can and should appoint somebody else to be his confidential aide on sensitive matters, while choosing a figurehead for the national-security-adviser job.
In terms of the NSC staff, the problem is more complex. There are more than 40 staff members working with the substance of national-security affairs. They can be divided into two categories: regional specialists and functional specialists. The former include those with responsibility for a geographic region--for example, Africa or East Asia. These jobs dovetail with regional bureaus at the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. Functional specialists cover such subjects as international economics, intelligence, political-military affairs and arms control. In addition to their designated areas of responsibility, each staff member spends a certain amount of time being part protocol officer--signing off on presidential thank-you letters--and part diplomat--meeting with foreign ambassadors and specialists.
Unlike the work of people of equivalent rank in other agencies, the day-to-day agenda for the NSC staff is flexible. Aside from specific tasks relating to the President's schedule, each staff member has considerable discretion as to what issues to become deeply involved with or not. Since it is impossible to keep abreast of all the issues going on in individual areas, the staff has to make judgment calls on what can be left to the bureaucracy. By inference, this usually means that they focus on two categories: First, those that directly affect the President. Second, those that are most important, either intrinsically--for example, nuclear strategy--or those that command headlines.
Just as different Presidents use their staffs in different ways, so does each national-security adviser. Three preceding advisers--Richard V. Allen, William B. Clark, Robert C. McFarlane--and the incumbent, Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, have had different managerial styles and, most important, different relationships with the President and his chief domestic advisers. For many staffers, the golden age came with Clark; he brought staff members to the President's morning briefings and let them have their say. Such access to the Oval Office for staff members is very unusual.
Where into this scheme of things does my former colleague, the now-legendary Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, fit? Right in the middle, I think. He has been effective because of his hard work, dedication and longevity on the job--he is approaching his sixth year at the White House. If I were a hostage I would want Ollie as my case officer. Effective "can-do" staffers are invaluable and for this reason become key players in any organization.