Frank C. Carlucci is moving quickly to revamp the staff and operations of the National Security Council. With a broad mandate in hand from President Reagan, the administration's fifth national-security adviser in six years is preparing for major changes as Congress probes the agency's controversial role in the Iran-contra affair.
Diplomatic observers and administration officials voice hope that when Mr. Carlucci officially takes over in January, the White House agency will have a more professional look, with new faces, a new operating style, and better working relationships with the Congress and press.
Most important, with greater direct access to the Oval Office than his predecessors, Carlucci is expected to operate with more authority than they had. This is essential, say many analysts, to restore order to a foreign policy now widely viewed as in disarray.
``The problem over the last two years has not been that the NSC has been too strong, but that it's been too weak,'' comments former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. The result, says Dr. Brzezinski, has been ``the miasma of the [foreign policy] decisionmaking process.''
The NSC's functions have varied from administration to administration. But it is concerned generally with the twin tasks of strategic planning and coordinating policy among the several US agencies involved in national-security affairs, including the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency.
During the Reagan administration, the agency's policy-coordinating role has atrophied, while NSC staff member, in a break with practice, have become directly involved in covert operations like the Iran arms sale.
Analysts say this shift in the NSC's functions is partly the result of moves to downgrade the role of the national-security adviser. None of the four previous NSC chiefs under Reagan has been senior enough - as Henry Kissinger was during President Nixon's first term - to deal as a peer with ranking foreign-policy officials like Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
Only one of those advisers, William Clark, has been close enough personally to the President to say, as Brzezinski says is necessary on occasion, ``What you're doing is wrong, Mr. President.''
The result has been a partial vacuum at what should be the very center of the complex US foreign-policy apparatus.
Analysts say the temptation to use the NSC for covert action partly reflects the fact that the agency is not covered by laws that require intelligence agencies like the CIA to notify Congress when it undertakes highly sensitive operations like the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran. As a result, NSC operations are less susceptible to news leaks.
``The NSC, as one of the most leak-proof agencies of government, finds itself carrying a lot of water,'' says Federal Bureau of Investigation director William Webster. Mr. Webster has been a frequent participant in National Security Council discussions on matters relating to intelligence and terrorism.
Former NSC staff member Robert Hunter notes that the agency has become a convenient place to try to resolve nettlesome policy contradictions that cannot be reconciled elsewhere.
``We want the hostages out, but we don't want to pay ransom; we don't want a communist government in Nicaragua, but we don't want Americans to die,'' says Dr. Hunter, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``Running covert action out of the NSC is one way to get out of the dilemma.''
But Hunter says such operations have gone wrong because they have ignored congressional reporting requirements. By running operations on its own, the NSC has lost the trust of officials at the State Department and other agencies. By feeding leaks to the press, Hunter speculates, ``the bureaucracy is now getting even with the NSC.''
Announcing that he is ``organizing for the future,'' Carlucci last week appointed a 10-man team of experienced outsiders to determine ``what kind of changes may be appropriate.'' He said the advisery group would produce a ``good quality-control mechanism to the decisionmaking process'' in the NSC designed to avoid the past mistakes.
The group will coordinate with a three-man commission named last week by Reagan to study the NSC's operational role. The commission is headed by former Senator John Tower and includes former NSC head Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie.
Experts agree that, ultimately, restoring the NSC's credibility may be principally a function of Carlucci's own reputation as a skilled and respected foreign-policy expert. A former diplomat, assistant secretary of defense, and deputy CIA director, Carlucci brings more hands-on experience to the job than any of his predecessors under Reagan.
``The job requires enough foreign-policy experience to make it possible to have a gut feel for what makes sense, so you can say this is crazy or this is a good idea,'' says Philip Odeen, author of a 1979 study of the NSC during the Carter administration. ``Carlucci is the perfect choice in this regard.''