NSC Senior Director Maren Brooks, journalist Malcolm Gladwell, and Amb. Charles Ries at RAND's Politics Aside event in Santa Monica, November 12, 2016

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Making National Security Decisions

NSC Senior Director Maren Brooks, journalist Malcolm Gladwell, and Amb. Charles Ries at RAND's Politics Aside event in Santa Monica, November 12, 2016

Photo by Maria Martin/RAND Corporation

November 15, 2016

In a crisis, there's a tendency in government to add more people to address the problem, but doing so often slows decision-making.

The growth of the National Security Council (NSC) and its effects on decision-making were the focus of a panel discussion, “Making Decisions in National Security,” Saturday afternoon at the nonprofit RAND Corporation. The discussion, part of RAND's Politics Aside event, was moderated by Malcolm Gladwell, author and journalist for The New Yorker, with panelists Maren Brooks, senior director, National Security Council, and Ambassador Charles Ries, vice president, International at RAND.

Gladwell cited Fred Brooks' 1975 book, “The Mythical Man-Month” and “Brooks' Law,” which says that adding manpower to a late software project makes it even later. People often believe they can speed up a project by adding additional bodies to a task, but tasks are not perfectly divisible. Adding more people increases communication costs; coordinating and sharing information takes time.

“It would be easier to make policy on the things that matter if you have fewer people,” Ries said. “The more people you have, the more they generate meetings, because they have to justify their existence.”

Brooks said the size of the NSC has tended to ebb and flow over time. When Condoleezza Rice was the National Security Advisor, she thought the NSC was too large and planned to reduce it, only to see it grow by 50 percent by the time she left, in part because of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Ries said the tendency to expand agencies after a crisis happens because it's often easier to invent something new rather than require the agency to fix problems in the existing structure. He said he was also bothered by the proliferation of newly created “czars” outside of the agency structures to deal with emerging problems. The problem occurs when a czar goes to deal with a foreign counterpart and finds there isn't one.

“We don't make policy and decide what to do in a vacuum; we're dealing with other governments,” Ries said. “If we can think about things the way our allies, partners and adversaries do, we'll be better placed to adopt strategies that can succeed.”

Brooks said an alternative solution for an emerging crisis—for example, Ebola—would be to bring in 15 people to solve the problem on more of a task-force level, in a time-defined surge capacity rather than creating a permanent czar.

— Lisa Sodders