131. Letter From Donald R. Lesh of the Senior Interdepartmental Group Staff to Harlan Clark of the U.S. Army War College1

Dear Mr. Clark:

I must apologize for my delay in responding to your inquiry about the recent activities of the Senior Interdepartmental Group (SIG). I hope that the enclosed brochure2 published by the Jackson Subcommittee on National Security and International Operations, although almost two years old, will provide useful information on the background and organization of the Interdepartmental Regional Groups (IRGs) and the SIG, and therefore I will confine my comments to the more recent activity of those bodies. Additional copies of the brochure, incidentally, are available from the Government Printing Office, if you should feel that they would be suitable for use in courses at the Army War College.

I am especially happy to provide some current information about the work of the SIG for two reasons: first, I realize that there is very little on the subject available from any other source for use in research or teaching, and second, there is a widespread misconception that the SIG has been either ineffective, inactive, or both. I think that the record will show that the SIG and the IRGs, particularly during the past six months, have come closer to living up to the expectations of NSAM 341 than ever before.

Admittedly, the history of the SIG since the issuance of NSAM 341 has been somewhat mixed. In fact, the irregular pattern of its activity almost justifies the use of such terms as the “First and Second Incarnations” of the SIG. What one might call the First Incarnation began with Meeting #1 on March 8, 1966, just four days after the appearance of NSAM 341, and continued through Meeting #13 on July 26, 1966. These first thirteen meetings, under the chairmanship of Under Secretary Ball, dealt with a wide range of problems from purely organizational questions to discussions of trouble spots in Asia and Africa, and from an analysis of possible NATO military balance of payments union to the arrangements required by the SIG’s assumption of the responsibilities for counterinsurgency formerly carried out by the Special Group (CI). In general, during this initial period the work of the SIG appears to have emphasized its appellate court function of providing a high-level forum for the resolution of interdepartmental disputes.

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After thirteen meetings in roughly five months, the SIG then entered a period of quiescence. From late July 1966 until mid-July 1967 the SIG met only three times; Meetings #14–16 were held in September 1966 and January and February 1967, respectively. It was this hiatus in the operations of the SIG, without doubt, which gave rise to the not uncommon impression that the SIG was dead or dying. This was not altogether the case. Under Secretary Katzenbach was anxious, before finally adopting SIG as his “chosen instrument,” to explore other ways of “managing” foreign affairs and achieving interdepartmental coordination. It was during this period that Professor Schelling examined these other possibilities. In the end, the decision was made to use the SIG mechanism with some change of focus and emphasis. I should point out, however, that two of the IRGs remained active in this period and built a solid record of achievement.

Meeting #17 on July 19, 1967 marked the beginning of what might be called the Second Incarnation of the SIG. A new Staff Director was appointed3 and a small staff gradually reconstituted during the fall of 1967. With the active interest, participation, and support of Mr. Katzenbach, the SIG met a total of 14 times during the past six months (Meeting #30 was held on January 25, 1968.). Furthermore, the SIG now is operating in a decidedly activist manner, i.e., the staff—now comprising four officers under the Staff Director—is engaged in seeking out problems which logically ought to be addressed in the SIG, regardless of whether a given matter has been taken up previously in an IRG or whether any interagency dissent has been registered.

Much of the time of the SIG in recent months has been devoted to the wide range of problems posed by severe Congressional cuts in the Foreign Assistance Act, and to the development of an Executive Branch position responsive to Congressional intent in the Conte-Long and Symington Amendments to the FAA of 1967.

This SIG also has begun to assume an increasing role in the management end of foreign affairs. One meeting was devoted to a study of the worldwide implications of the so-called “Operation Topsy” being carried out under the direction of Ambassador Tuthill in Brazil,4 and most recently the SIG was assigned responsibility by the President for implementation of his program on the reduction of personnel in overseas missions and restriction of official travel. A special joint [Page 305] State-Budget task force has been created under the auspices of the SIG, and has been in operation for almost three weeks.5

In addition, the SIG has dealt with such matters as developing a unified United States posture on the future of the Ryukyu and Bonin Islands, examining the pros and cons of the sale of jet aircraft to Latin American countries, and defining United States arms supply policy to Middle Eastern countries in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli conflict of June 1967.

In practice, all SIG members are now asked to hold each Thursday at 4:00 p.m. for a SIG meeting, with the expectation that there will be roughly two a month. As you can see from the record, that frequency has been achieved in practice since last July. Furthermore, there has been an extremely good record of attendance by all members. As envisaged by NSAM 341, the principals themselves virtually always come in person, sending deputies only in the event of illness, travel, or real emergency. Mr. Katzenbach has personally chaired every meeting during his tenure as Under Secretary.

I have every expectation that in the future both the IRGs and the SIG will play an increasing role, in cooperation with the Bureau of the Budget, in the planning and programming of overseas operations by all foreign affairs agencies. As a first step in this direction, there was a series of joint State-Budget consultations during the fall of 1967, in the course of which State Department Country Directors and regional Assistant Secretaries (the latter in their roles as IRG chairmen) were given an opportunity to review the draft budget submissions for Fiscal Year 1969 from AID, MAP, USIA, Peace Corps and CU. These materials were made available by all agencies in order to permit the Country Directors and Assistant Secretaries of State to review the plans for their respective countries and regions, to ensure that the programs were compatible and aimed toward agreed foreign policy goals, and to verify that the supporting data was sufficiently complete and properly organized to make a convincing case to the Congress.

I emphasize that this was the first time that such an opportunity had been available while the budget submissions were still in draft, before the final Bureau of the Budget package had been prepared for [Page 306] Presidential attention. This type of review is needed as agencies prepare their budget justification in the new PPBS form. Each agency must state explicit objectives and these clearly must be part of our overall foreign affairs program.

The consultations, carried on under SIG auspices, culminated in a series of lengthy and informative meetings with each regional Assistant Secretary and his IRG Staff Director and other advisors, together with the Staff Director of the SIG and the head of the International Operations Division of the Budget Bureau. While there were some justified criticisms of this operation—in particular, that it came too late in the budget cycle to allow anything more than a quick look and some hurried observations—there was widespread agreement that this kind of interdepartmental coordination is highly desirable, and that a greater effort will be made to involve the responsible State Department officials earlier in the FY budget cycle, especially at the Country Director and IRG level.

In this context, I should also mention the work of the IRG/ARA, which has been working closely with the staff of the SIG in developing and refining the Country Analysis and Strategy Paper (CASP) program. This subject is too broad for detailed discussion in this already overly-long letter, but you probably know that the CASP program was carried through its first complete cycle in ARA during calendar year 1967, and that the second cycle has just begun. The exercise is an attempt to obtain from each of our Ambassadors in Latin America an annual coordinated country plan—not merely a summary of the operations of various agencies, but a unified plan. Each of these plans is reviewed and debated in the IRG/ARA, and ultimately approved by the Assistant Secretary as revised or corrected. The goal is that the CASP should become the primary planning document for all foreign affairs agencies for any given country in the area. The experiment has not been undertaken in other bureaus, and in fact the CASP in its present form may not be suitable for direct transplantation, but the concept of unified planning through the interdepartmental mechanisms specified in NSAM 341 almost certainly will spread to other regional bureaus in time.

I cannot do full justice here to the activities of the other IRGs, but they certainly deserve some separate mention since, even with an active SIG, the great burden of the work of interdepartmental coordination will continue to be done on the level of the regional groups. Here again, as might be expected, the record could be called mixed but promising.

Even during the period when the SIG virtually ceased to function, some of the IRGs, as I have mentioned, continued to operate actively and effectively. A host of factors influence the degree to which any IRG is used, chief among them being degree of determination of a given Assistant Secretary to employ this medium of interdepartmental coordination. The [Page 307] most active of the IRGs have been in NEA and ARA, which have met over 50 and 80 times, respectively, since their formation in March 1966. The IRGs in other areas have met less often but, owing in large part to the strongly expressed interest of the Under Secretary, the regional groups in EUR, EA and AF are now being used with greater frequency.

I think you will agree that the picture I have described does not support the conclusion that the mandate of NSAM 341 has been allowed to languish. And there is every expectation that the coming year will see an even higher level of activity in the SIG and IRGs. Those of us on the SIG staff of course are well aware that improvements can be made in the functioning of the SIG. Nevertheless, I feel that the mechanisms for interdepartmental coordination of foreign policy outlined in NSAM 341 are now at the stage where their effectiveness and productivity will become more apparent.

Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance in this regard. Also, as I am sure you recognize, some of the above should be treated as classified—particularly the exact nature of SIG topics. But otherwise feel free to use any of this information as you see fit.


Donald R. Lesh 6
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, S/P Files-SIG Papers: Lot 74 D 344, SIG Comment. Confidential.
  2. Not attached. See Document 58.
  3. In an August 4, 1967, memorandum Katzenbach notified SIG members that Arthur Hartman was replacing Harry Schwartz as SIG Staff Director. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, S/S-Katzenbach Files: Lot 74 D 271, Chron. Mr. Katzenbach-1966–67)
  4. Operation Topsy was an exercise instituted by Ambassador Tuthill in 1967 to trim U.S. programs and reduce U.S. personnel in Brazil.
  5. In a memorandum to Secretary of State Rusk and Bureau of the Budget Director Schultze, January 18, 1968, President Johnson directed that, as part of his program for dealing with the balance of payments problem, the number of American personnel overseas under the jurisdiction of U.S. diplomatic missions (except for Vietnam) be reduced by 10 percent and that “very large U.S. missions” undergo “bigger reductions.” For text, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968–69, Book I, pages 34–35. SIG played an active role in the ensuing exercise, known as BALPA. Documentation on BALPA is in the National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, O/MS-Management Staff Files: Lot 70 D 474, BALPA Subject Files, 1968.
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.