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National Security

A Need For Balance

Lawmakers frustrated with presidential war-making passed the War Powers Act of 1973. An attempt to enforce the Constitution's balance of power, the law curtails the president's ability to send troops into foreign areas in the absence of a declaration of war. It requires presidents to report to Congress first, and, within 60 days of deployment, to begin a troop recall that lasts no longer than thirty days. Congress may at any time force a recall of troops. No president has liked nor been terribly held back by the War Powers Act. While the nation has not engaged in a protracted war since the Vietnam era, the law stopped no president from sending U.S. forces into conflict, whether President Ronald Reagan in Lebanon and Grenada or President George Bush in the Persian Gulf and Panama. The federal courts have rejected lawsuits demanding enforcement of the law, notably in Crockett v. Reagan (1982), which held that Congress' lawmaking power was sufficient to address any problems.

The National Security Council (NSC) has played a pivotal role since the late twentieth century. Established in 1947 and placed under executive branch control two years later, the NSC originally was a small advisory group. Gradually, it assumed policy functions that formerly belonged to the State Department. Thus from 1968 to 1972, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger took the primary role in shaping President Nixon's foreign policies on Vietnam and the Middle East, eclipsing the role of Nixon's own secretary of state. By the mid-1980s, having attained its highest influence to date under President Reagan, the council became enmeshed in the Iran-Contra scandal. This grew out of the Reagan administration's backing of anti-Communist rebels, the Contras, in their war against the Nicaraguan government. The administration's position failed to win congressional support. After Congress banned U.S. military aid to the rebels, the NSC violated the ban by secretly selling weapons to the government of Iran, and then giving proceeds from those sales to the Contra rebels. An investigation of the scandal lasted over six years, led to numerous prosecutions, and resulted in a few convictions that were overturned on appeal or reversed by presidential pardon.

In the 1980s and 1990s, broader definitions of national security emerged. The collapse of the Soviet Union effectively ended the Cold War, which had been the fundamental paradigm in national security for over four decades. Now, the rise of international terrorism, new economic challenges, and even the illegal drug trade were all characterized as national security issues. The National Security Council became the coordinating point for all government agencies on national security matters as its expanding mission involved the heads of the military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and even on occasion such cabinet members as the secretary of the treasury and the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Official views on what endangered the nation, and what protected it, once again were seen to change almost as quickly as the world.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesNational Security - Of Highest Concern, Responsibility, Presidential Power, National Security During War, A Need For Balance