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Lesson 3: National Security Roles

Lesson Overview

This lesson provides an overview of the roles and functions of key national security players.

At the end of this lesson, you will be able to describe:

  • The national security roles and functions of executive branch organizations.
  • The role of Congress in national security.
  • The authorities under which each entity executes its national security role.

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This lesson takes approximately 20 minutes to complete.

Roles Overview

graphic with circle and star. Text reads Diplomatic, Economic, Information, Intelligence, Military.

Traditionally, national security roles fall into five categories:

  • Diplomatic: influencing foreign nations and international organizations through bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements, negotiations, and engagement.
  • Economic: shaping international activity through U.S. spending and taxation; policy on money supply and interest rates; sanctions; export controls; trade and investment agreements; development assistance and humanitarian relief; and leading by example through maintenance of openness to foreign trade, investment policy, and arrangements.
  • Information: communicating U.S. Government intent, values, and views. 
  • Military: using the capabilities of the U.S. Armed Forces to deter conflict, defeat an adversary, or respond to a crisis.
  • Intelligence: gathering and interpreting information relating to the capabilities, intentions, or activities of foreign governments, organizations, or persons, or international terrorist activities to support decision-making.

National security roles can also include financial and law enforcement issues, particularly for transnational threats, such as terrorism, counternarcotics, and proliferation of WMD. These lines of operation also provide critical feedback that should be factored into U.S. policy decisions and actions.

Key national security players from the Executive Branch include the President, National Security Council, Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, Department of Defense, Intelligence Community, Department of Commerce, and Department of the Treasury. Increasingly, agencies not traditionally considered as "national security agencies," such as the Departments of Agriculture and/or Interior, perform roles that have national security implications. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), although domestically focused, interacts internationally for domestic security purposes (for example, through engagement between DHS components, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and foreign counterparts to address security issues before cargo originating overseas reaches the United States).


Former President George H. W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton, join President George W. Bush in the Oval Office Tuesday, March 8, 2005.

The President’s authority in national security is provided by Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which designates the President as the "Commander in Chief" of the U.S. military, grants the President the authority to make treaties, and places responsibility on the President for nominating and appointing ambassadors and all other officers of the United States. The President has broad authority to safeguard U.S. national security.

As the head of the Executive Branch, the President is responsible for establishing national security policy and overseeing its implementation. The President submits a budget request and proposed legislation to address national security priorities and plays an important role in communicating national security policy to foreign governments and the public. The President's management style and choice of cabinet officials have a large effect on the national security decision-making process. The President utilizes his own judgment, the advice of national security advisers, the National Security Council and the interagency coordination process to formulate and execute national security policy.

National Security Council

President Gerald Ford meeting with the National Security Council in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

The National Security Council (NSC) was established by the National Security Act of 1947 to "advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign and military polices relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and other departments and agencies of the Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security." In addition, the National Security Council exists to more effectively coordinate the policies and functions of departments and agencies involved in national security, assess the objectives, commitments, and risks of the United States in relation to our actual and potential military power, and consider policies on matters of common interest to departments and agencies involved in national security.

The National Security Council is chaired by the President. The exact composition of the NSC is at the discretion of each President, but must include the following statutory members:

  • President
  • Vice President
  • Secretary of State
  • Secretary of Defense

In 2007, Congress added the Secretary of Energy to the National Security Council. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the statutory military advisor to the Council and the Director of National Intelligence is its statutory intelligence advisor. Other cabinet officials, such as the President's Chief of Staff or the Attorney General, may attend NSC meetings based on the issues to be discussed. Under President George W. Bush, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs are non-statutory members of the NSC.

Historically, the President establishes the interagency coordination structures that support National Security Council deliberations in each President's first policy directive. The National Security Council traditionally focuses on foreign and defense policy, although economic, energy, and transnational threat issues are also addressed by the National Security Council.

History of the National Security Council

National Security Advisor and NSC Staff

National Security Council Staff Organizational Structure chart.

Although not a statutory member, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, commonly referred to as the National Security Advisor, plays a key NSC role through agenda setting, issue preparation, and communication of Presidential decisions. 

The National Security Advisor is supported by a staff of approximately 200 full-time personnel. This staff is comprised of an Executive Secretary, career government employees on rotational assignments and political appointees with subject matter expertise. This staff is commonly referred to as the "NSC" throughout the bureaucracy. The exact size, composition, organization, and function of the NSC staff are subject to the work style and policy agenda of the President and the National Security Advisor. The primary purposes of the NSC staff are to provide policy analysis and information on national security issues to the National Security Advisor and the President, facilitate interagency coordination on national security policies, and monitor implementation of Presidential decisions.

View larger version the graphic (shown right) of the structure of the National Security Council staff as of June 2008.

A text description of this graphic is available on a separate page.

Department of State


The Department of State was established and signed into law on July 27, 1789. It was the first Federal agency to be created under the U.S. Constitution.


The Department of State is responsible for formulating, representing, and implementing the President's foreign policy. The diplomatic role includes a wide range of activities and topics that affect all other national security roles.  Statutory authority for the Department of State and legislative requirements and restrictions on foreign policy are contained in Title 22 of U.S. Code

The Secretary of State serves as the President's principal adviser on foreign policy issues, coordinates and oversees implementation of foreign policy issues for the U.S. government, and protects U.S. interests and citizens abroad.  The Secretary is supported by a staff of approximately 57,906 employees worldwide.

In Washington, seven key regional and functional staffs support the Secretary in formulating foreign policy: 

  1. Political Affairs (P): day-to-day management of regional and bilateral policy issues and international narcotics and law enforcement
  2. Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance (F): ensures that foreign assistance provided by the U.S. Government is strategic, coherent and supports US foreign policy objectives
  3. Economic, Energy and Agricultural Affairs (E): advises on international economic policy
  4. Arms Control and International Security (T): advises on nonproliferation and global security policy issues
  5. Democracy and Global Affairs (G): advises on democracy, human rights, labor, environment, oceans, science, population, refugees, migration, women's issues, and trafficking in persons
  6. Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R): communication of U.S. policy
  7. Management (M): Provides critical support functions (consular affairs, diplomatic security, human resources, budget, etc)

U.S. Missions are responsible for managing U.S. relations with foreign countries and international organizations.  A Chief of Mission heads each U.S. Mission and is designated by law as the President's personal representative abroad.  The Chief of Mission is responsible for communicating U.S. policy, providing information and advice to Washington, developing plans for Mission activities, overseeing executive branch personnel assigned to a mission, and providing assistance to American citizens abroad.

Listing of U.S. Embassies, Consulates, and Diplomatic Missions 
Organizational chart of Department of State

United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

African school children in Sudan. Teachers are in short supply in the aftermath of two decades of civil war in their country. Since 2002, USAID has renovated, built, and expanded teacher education institutions.

The history of USAID is tied to predecessor agencies that implemented the Marshall Plan reconstruction of Europe after World War II and the Truman Administration's Point Four Program. In 1961, the Foreign Assistance Act was signed into law and USAID was created by executive order.  Since that time, USAID has been the principal U.S. agency to extend assistance to countries recovering from disaster, trying to escape poverty, and engaging in democratic reforms.

USAID is an independent federal government agency that receives overall foreign policy guidance from the Secretary of State. USAID accelerates human progress in developing countries by reducing poverty, advancing democracy, building market economics, promoting security, responding to crises, and improving the quality of life.  USAID provides this assistance in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and Eurasia, and the Middle East.

Although its headquarters is in Washington, USAID's focus is on field offices, where it works closely with private voluntary organizations, indigenous organizations, universities, American businesses, international agencies, other governments, and other U.S. government agencies to provide development assistance and humanitarian relief.

Department of Defense

DoD Logo with collage of military images.

The Department of Defense is responsible for providing the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of the United States.  Statutory authority for the Department of Defense is contained in Title 10 of U.S. Code. The Department of Defense's national security roles cover a broad spectrum of conditions ranging from war to peace, including warfighting; supporting foreign internal defense; homeland defense under all kinds of conditions; humanitarian aid; and maintaining relationships with foreign militaries.

The Secretary of Defense is the principal defense policy advisor to the President and is responsible for the formulation of defense policy and for the execution of approved policy. The President exercises command of military forces through the Secretary of Defense and through the commanders of the unified combatant commands. The Secretary is supported by over 1.3 million active duty military members, 669,281 civilian personnel, and another 1.1 million National Guard and Reserve members. The key components of DOD are:

  • Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD): helps the Secretary plan, advise, and carry out the nation's security policies as directed by both the Secretary of Defense and the President. Five key Under Secretaries work for the Secretary of Defense in critical areas of policy, budgets, force readiness, intelligence and acquisition.
  • Military Services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps): Responsible for training and equipping military forces to perform warfighting, peacekeeping and humanitarian/disaster assistance tasks. Military services do not exercise command of military forces when those forces are employed operationally for any purpose. U.S. Special Operations Command also performs "Service-like" train and equip functions for special forces in addition to its Combatant Command functions.
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: the Chairman serves as the principal military advisor to the President, the National Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense, but is not in the operational chain of command. The Chairman is supported by the "Joint Staff" that coordinates military policy, strategy, planning, operations, and capability requirements.
  • Unified Combatant Commands: command military forces by direction of the Secretary of Defense and the President.  The commands conduct military operations and are composed of at least two military services, organized around either a regional or functional mission. There currently are ten commands: six regional commands (Africa, Central, Europe, Pacific, Northern, Southern) and four functional commands (Joint Forces, Special Operations, Strategic, Transportation).

Organizational chart of Department of Defense

Intelligence Community

Diamond shaped graphic with handshake and US flag and words Intelligence Community.

Intelligence plays a vital role in protecting the national security of the United States. The Intelligence Community, consisting of 17 organizations led by the Director of National Intelligence, is responsible for providing the President, the National Security Council, and other executive branch entities with the necessary information on which to base decisions concerning the conduct and development of foreign, defense and economic policy, and the protection of United States national interests from security threats. The Intelligence Community refers to the federal government agencies, services, bureaus, or other organizations that conduct a variety of intelligence activities:

  • Director of National Intelligence
  • Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence
  • Air Force Intelligence
  • Army Intelligence
  • Central Intelligence Agency
  • Coast Guard Intelligence
  • Defense Intelligence Agency
  • Department of Energy, Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence
  • Department of Homeland Security, Office of Intelligence and Analysis
  • Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research
  • Department of the Treasury, Office of Intelligence and Analysis
  • Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Office of National Security Intelligence
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Branch
  • Marine Corps Intelligence
  • National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
  • National Reconnaissance Office
  • National Security Agency
  • Navy Intelligence

The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) is the head of the Intelligence Community and is the principal advisor to the President, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council for intelligence matters related to national security. Statutory authority for intelligence matters is found in Title 50 U.S. Code.

View more information on each member of the Intelligence Community.

Departments of the Treasury and Commerce

E Pluribus Unum. Coins and historical document image collage.

The Secretary of the Treasury is the President's lead policy advisor on a broad range of economic issues that affect U.S. national security.  The Department of the Treasury promotes economic growth and stability, and ensures the security of the U.S. and international financial systems.  The Department of the Treasury formulates and executes U.S. international economic and financial policy, including policies for international financial, economic, monetary, trade, investment, bilateral aid, environment, debt, development, and energy programs, including U.S. participation in international financial institutions.  The Treasury Department also implements economic sanctions against foreign threats. Statutory authority for the Department of the Treasury is found in Title 31 of U.S. Code.

Department of the Treasury Organizational Chart

The Secretary of Commerce is responsible for promoting foreign and domestic commerce, enforcing international trade agreements, regulating the export of sensitive goods and technologies, and protecting intellectual property.  Statutory authority for the Department of Commerce is found in Title 15 of U.S. Code.

Department of Commerce Organizational Chart

Department of Justice

FBI Seal/logo. National Security Branch.

The Attorney General and various components of the Department of Justice work to ensure that national security-related activities of the United States are consistent with relevant law; work to prevent, disrupt, and defeat terrorists operations before attacks occur; handle terrorism, counterespionage, counterproliferation, war crimes, and counter-drug and other national security investigations and prosecutions; obtain court authorization for the collection of foreign intelligence under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA); conduct oversight of intelligence agency compliance with certain national security legal requirements; and provide specialzed expertise in international training. Statutory authority for the Department of the Justice is found in Title 28 of U.S. Code.

Non-Traditional National Security Agency Roles

Board Room. Gabe Reyes.

Over the last few years, the role of non-traditional national security agencies in executing U.S. objectives internationally has grown.  Examples include:

  • Departments with primarily domestic roles, such as the Department of Agriculture or Health and Human Services, providing their expertise for international stabilization operations. 
  • The Department of Homeland Security plays a significant role in negotiating agreements and sharing information with foreign governments on matters regarding U.S. border or transportation security. It is also responsible for immigration issues, important in both security and in the promotion of U.S. human rights principles.
  • Pandemic diseases or bioterrorist threats are national security concerns that would involve the Department of Health and Human Services. 

The nature of transnational threats, the effect of energy and environmental concerns on our national security, and cooperation on stability operations all offer opportunities for non-traditional agencies to play important roles in national security.


Capital Building at dusk, Washington D.C.

Congressional authority in national security is provided by Article I of the U.S. Constitution. Congress is responsible for the provision of funding for U.S. national security, regulation of commerce with foreign nations, declaration of war, provision of legislative authorities and restrictions with regard to U.S. involvement internationally, ratification of treaties, confirmation of Presidential appointees, and oversight of executive branch policy implementation. Congressional members and committees exercise these powers to influence national security policymaking and implementation. The Congressional Budget Office, the General Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, and committee staff produce analysis that allows Congress to influence national security issues, whether through legislation or oversight.

Key Congressional committees in oversee national security issues are:

International and Non-Governmental Organizations

Entities outside of the U.S. government also impact U.S. national security policies and approaches. Alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and international organizations, such as the United Nations provide forums to advance U.S. policy objectives and provide capabilities that can be used to address national security issues. Targeted partnerships, such as the G-8 Global Partnership against Weapons of Mass Destruction are also national security forums used to advance U.S. policy and address common issues. View more information on international organzations.

Private sector entities can also have a significant impact on U.S. policy goals, particularly with respect to foreign assistance and development programs and by contributing research and intelligence products on national security issues. Coordination with think tanks, academia, individuals and non-governmental organizations is helpful in making effective policy decisions. Go to for more informatioin on how the U.S. government partners with private sector entities in foreign assistance.

G8 Group Photo. President Bush with international leaders.

While this course focuses on the government's processes, roles, and resources, it must be noted that international and non-governmental organizations play a very important role in national security affairs.

Knowledge Review

Match the national security responsibility to the responsible entity by dragging the entities from the left column into the correct box in the right column. Correct answers will stay in the box.

To use the keyboard to place answers tab through the answers column on the left and hit enter or spacebar to select an entity. Then tab through the boxes on the right to find the matching answer and hit enter or space to place the answer. Correct answers will stay in the box.

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Lesson 3: Summary

This lesson presented the following topics:

  • The national security roles and functions of executive branch organizations.
  • The role of Congress in national security.
  • The authorities under which each entity executes its national security role.

The next lesson provides an overview of national security missions and basic processes.


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