National Security Act of 1947

Happy Birthday, National Security Act of 1947!

By Matthew Kahn
Monday, September 18, 2017, 4:40 PM

Today marks 70 years since the National Security Act took effect, restructuring the American national security apparatus toward what it looks like today. The septuagenarian law forms the basis of much of the Lawfare’s regular content. To mark our appreciation for it, this piece highlights four key institutions whose modern incarnations originated in the National Security Act: the NSC, the CIA, the predecessor to the Defense Department, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

National Security Council

The act envisioned the National Security Council as the primary vehicle for coordinating national security policy. As envisioned in the act, the Council would assess and recommend measures to integrate “domestic, foreign, and military policies related to national security.” The leader of its staff, an “executive secretary” that would evolve into the National Security Advisor by 1953, would receive $10,000 compensation, the equivalent of $106,747 in 2017 dollars, and whose appointment did not require the Senate’s advice and consent. Perhaps because the role does not require Senate approval, it has often been occupied by the president’s closest confidants: the dynamics between Nixon and Kissinger, Carter and Brzezinski, Bush Sr. and Scowcroft, and Obama and Rice illustrate that trend.

Central Intelligence Agency

The act also created the Central Intelligence Agency to coordinate the nation’s intelligence operations. The CIA would report to the NSC and would be responsible for advising its members about intelligence activities. A Senate-approved Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), who may be a military officer or civilian, would be its leader. The CIA would have no police, subpoena, or law enforcement powers and would not perform internal security functions. The act empowered the DCI to inspect the intelligence information of all other agencies and departments “to the extent recommended by the National Security Council and approved by the President.” The DCI would continue to lead the nation’s intelligence operations for almost 58 years, when the Senate confirmed John Negroponte as the first Director of National Intelligence in April 2005. The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act created that position on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.

Department of Defense

The act created the National Military Establishment (NME), which would later become the Department of Defense. It would include the Department of the Air Force, also created by the 1947 law, the Department of the Army (formerly the War Department), and the Department of the Navy and would be led by a Secretary of Defense. The secretary required Senate approval and must not have served on active duty within ten years–the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act reduced that time period to seven years. The act allowed three civilian assistant secretaries.

Joint Chiefs of Staff

Lastly, the act created the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A subsidiary of the NME and consisting of the Chiefs of Staff of the Air Force, Army, and the White House, as well as the Chief of Naval Operations, the group would act as the principal military advisers to the President and Secretary of Defense. The Joint Chiefs would direct a staff of no more than 100 officers who would assist in the fulfillment of several statutory responsibilities.


These institutions and their descendants form the backbone of the modern national security bureaucracy of the United States. So happy birthday, National Security Act! Lawfare wouldn’t be the same without you.