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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


By Raphaël RAMOS,
Director of Production, ESISC

With the nomination of John McCain and Barack Obama by their respective parties, there
begins a highly sensitive period which includes the election and inauguration of the forty-
fourth President of the United States. It comes to an end only when the new administration
will be completely installed. This so-called period of ‘presidential transition’ in fact has a
crucial dimension for the country’s national security, because changes in administration are
traditionally marked by a concomitant slowdown in government activity before the departure
and, at the other end, by the arrival of a great number of officials. Starting with the
inauguration of the new President, several months are generally needed before the incoming
bureaucracy can function in an optimal manner.

History has shown that a number of American Presidents had to deal with major national and
international crises from the very first weeks of their term in office. Without going back as far
as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, we remember, in
particular, the Bay of Pigs landing that President Kennedy inherited in April 1961, the
bombardment of Cambodia decided by President Richard Nixon in March 1969 and the
deterioration of the situation in Somalia which Bill Clinton faced in May 1993.

Although a tradition of dialogue between the outgoing President and his successor dating
from Harry Truman, as well as various legislative provisions have made improvements to the
situation possible, the transition phase remains characterised by the vulnerability to which it
gives rise for the United States and its interests, above all in time of war.

Hence, given the instability of the present international context and the fact that the summer
phase of the electoral campaign was largely marked by the topic of national security,1 it seems
timely to look closely into the issues of this period which though brief can leave an
irreversible imprint on the term in office of the next occupant of the White House. By means
of various examples, we will present the crucial dimension of presidential transitions before
examining the special sensitivity of the next transition. Finally, we will look into the
arrangements recently made and what should be undertaken in order to improve this

1. A traditionally crucial period

Ever since 1797 when George Washington handed over the powers of the Presidency to John
Adams, the United States has had to deal with this practice that was only codified much
later. Although the transition between the first American President and the man who was at
the time his Vice President took place calmly, that has not always been the case, in particular
when power was handed over between two men who came from different parties. This
practice was improved with Harry Truman and his successors but it remains sensitive as we
can see from the last transition between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in 2000-2001.

􏰀 Historical examples of transition

It was in fact President Truman who informally instituted the tradition whereby the
outgoing President facilitates the arrival of his successor in his duties, even
when he comes from a different party. On the day after the victory of Dwight
Eisenhower in the elections of November 1952, Truman invited the five-star general to come
and meet him in the White House to ‘discuss the problems relating to the transition
period in order to demonstrate to the world that the nation is united in its fight
for liberty and peace.’ 2 In parallel, the Democratic President asked the federal agencies
reporting to the Executive to keep him informed of the actions they were undertaking to
facilitate the arrival in the White House of the Eisenhower Administration.3 During the
electoral campaign, Harry Truman had already charged the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency)
in 1952 with the task of providing the Presidential candidates with a daily intelligence
briefing similar to what he received every morning. 4

It is not surprising that these initiatives were made by President Truman given the way he
was propelled on April 12, 1945 to the highest post of the American executive branch. Upon
the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman took over sensitive issues dealing with foreign
policy about which he had not been kept informed. It thus seems obvious that he wanted his
successors not to find themselves in a situation similar to his when he became President of
the United States. Moreover, Truman understood that the first decisions made by
his successor would be taken on the basis of the information and the activities of
his administration and that, for that reason, he should familiarise the entering President
with the ongoing affairs. Furthermore, as he indicated in the telegram he sent to Dwight
Eisenhower, Truman was aware of the imperatives of the Cold War and wanted,
when facing the Soviet Union, to give an image of unity and to assure as well as
possible the continuity of the executive power.

Another interesting example concerns the last Presidential transition made during wartime,
between Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) and Richard Nixon in 1968-1969. In the midst of the
Vietnam War, even before the November election, LBJ was the first President to invite the
campaign teams of the two candidates to meetings for the purpose of preparing the
transition. Richard Nixon began to prepare for his possible arrival at the White House as
from the end of the Republican Convention in July 1968 and got ideas from the reports
describing the previous transitions. Less than a month after his election, Nixon had chosen
his main assistants who were charged with the task of helping to run his administration.5 On
the other hand, the selection of the Cabinet took more time, though this did not influence
events since the essential aspects of American policy were formulated from the White House
by the President and his close advisers like Kissinger. The Departments of State and Defense,
as well as their bosses, were only going to play an administrative role. This special manner of
operation made it possible to limit any slowdown due to change of administration. This was
translated into action by the ability of the White House to lead, as from the month of March
1969, a campaign of air bombardment against Cambodia.

􏰀 Transition of 2000-2001

In July 2004, the publication of the works of the 9/11 Commission made it possible to shed
light on the shortcomings of the process of transition and their consequences for
the level of preparation of the incoming administration. In the case of the period
2000-2001, the hesitation which typically exists was accentuated by the disputed
electoral results in Florida, thereby delaying the process by more than one
month and, as the 9/11 Commission Report stated, reducing ‘by half the normal period of
transition.’ 6 Although the election took place on November 7, 2000, it was only on December
13 that the Democratic candidate Al Gore accepted his defeat. While ad hoc measures were
taken by the team of George W. Bush right from the announcement of the Florida results on
November 26, the take-over of the premises put at the disposal of the incoming
administration only occurred the day after the speech by the Democratic candidate. Thus, Mr
Bush had just five weeks to put his team in place before his inauguration.7

According to all the evidence, these circumstances ‘hindered the new administration in
identifying, recruiting, screening and confirming its principal staff members
by the Senate.’8 Experience and continuity were clearly favoured. Thus, apart from Vice
President Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Norman Mineta were chosen to
occupy the leading posts. The fact that all three of them had already faced confirmation
hearings in the Senate and security clearance had undeniably favoured their
designation. In parallel, Mr Bush’s transition team, led by Mr Cheney, chose to keep in
their posts a certain number of high officials. We think in particular of the Director of the
CIA George Tenet and Richard Clarke, who was responsible for counter-terrorism on the
National Security Council (NSC) since 1992. General Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chief of
Staff, held onto his duties at the head of the American Armed Forces until September 30,

However, these efforts aimed at favouring continuity in the transition came up against the
realities of administrative slowness. Thus, it took more than six months for the
assistants of Colin Powell at the State Department to complete the long process
which preceded their taking up their duties.9 On the eve of September 11, 2001, only
227 of the 508 posts to be filled by the Presidency had an occupant. Out of this
number, 106 persons occupied their positions for les than eight weeks.10 The most telling
example is that of Robert Mueller who took over as the head of the FBI (Federal Bureau of
Investigation) only one week before the attacks on New York and Washington. Succeeding
Louis Freeh, whose departure in the summer of 2001 had been anticipated long before, Mr.
Mueller was only named on July 5 and officially became the Director of the Bureau only on
September 4, 2001. As Michael Chertoff, the present Secretary of Homeland Security
emphasizes, ‘we lived through September 11th with many posts vacant. This was not a very
responsible way to deal with the threats that we were later confronted with.’ 11

2. A unique combination of threats and vulnerabilities

These words by Michael Chertoff are entirely appropriate to the period ahead due to a
particularly sensitive international setting and a national security apparatus that was largely
reformed by the Bush Administration, and for whom the handover of power between the two
administrations will be a first.

􏰀 A particularly sensitive security context

The period of presidential transition of 2008-2009 is the first since 9/11. It should be unique
due to the variety and quantity of threats facing the United States. According to a report
of the Department of Homeland Security, vulnerability will be greatest ‘30 days before, (…),
and up to six months after the change of administration.’ 12 Concerning the national
security, three categories of risks can be distinguished.

First of all, this change of administration comes during a time of war, since the American
Army has in fact been engaged in Afghanistan since October 2001 and in Iraq since March
2003. This is the first time in forty years and the handover of powers between LBJ and
Richard Nixon that a President will be inaugurated during a war. Unlike 1968-1969, the
American Armed Forces are presently deployed in two different operational theatres. The
United States has in fact slightly more than 140,000 men in Iraq and around 34,000 in
Afghanistan.13 The maintenance of these force levels requires on the part of the Pentagon
leadership an irreproachable management which cannot allow itself to be disturbed by a
Presidential transition. Moreover, the initiatives concerning the Transformation of American
Armed Forces14 presently under way also require that continuity be maintained during the
change in administration.15 For Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, whose career within the
American national security apparatus goes back to the 1960s, this period remains
problematic. According to Mr. Gates, this process has ‘deteriorated’ over the course of the
last twenty-five years and it takes more and more time for new teams to be put in place at the

Next, everyone is aware that the American presidential election is coming in a particularly
sensitive international setting that is marked by the development of regional threats.
Quite obviously one thinks of Iran and North Korea, which could seek to take advantage of
the situation. An increase in tensions has also been seen between Washington and certain
capitals of Latin America such as Caracas and La Paz.17 Moreover, the crisis that took
place in August between Russia and Georgia illustrates perfectly the
vulnerability of the American authorities in a period of presidential transition.
While the initiative for these disturbances may be traced back to Georgia and not to Russia,
Moscow has skillfully exploited the context and limited margin of maneuver of a Bush
administration that is on its way out. It is not improbable that the powerlessness of the
White House reinforced the determination of the Kremlin to adopt a hard line with
regard to the West. One may wonder over the manner in which events would have developed
had such a crisis taken place at the end of December, when the teams at the White House and
the Pentagon are busy preparing to move out.

Finally, we cannot avoid the question of terrorism. Al-Qaeda and its associates have in
fact often used elections and periods of transition to carry out attacks. We think
back over the attacks in Madrid on March 11, 2004 which had an impact on the Spanish
legislative elections scheduled several days later. Similarly, on June 29 and 30, 2007, i.e., just
five days after Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister, the United Kingdom was
subjected to many attacks in London and in Glasgow. While in the case of Spain, the
relationship between the elections and the attacks is incontestable, doubts continue over the
link between Mr. Brown’s accession and the three attacks. These precedents nonetheless
indicate that one should take seriously the risk both to the United States and to its overseas
interests. The U.S. Ambassador in Yemen was recently targeted by an attack prepared by the
local branch of al-Qaeda.18 A highly placed official in the Department of Homeland Security
admits that ‘major terrorist attacks both here and abroad are often committed shortly
before or after national elections.’ 19 As regards precise threats, the American intelligence
community believes that ‘al-Qaeda is going to increase the frequency, the sophistication, the
opportunism and the anti-Western character of its propaganda to the extent that the
presidential election in the United States draws near.’ 20

􏰀 A national security apparatus that has been largely updated

The reach of threats which have been mentioned is enhanced by the absence of experience
with respect to presidential transition on the part of the American bureaucracy that has been
reorganised during the two terms of Mr. Bush and for which this handover of power will thus
be a first. We are thinking in particular of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), ODNI (Office of the Director of National Intelligence) and the NCTC (National
Counterterrorism Center).

The most worrisome case is without doubt that of the Department of Homeland Security.
Created in November 2002 by the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the DHS supervises and
coordinates the work of twenty-two federal agencies including Customs, the Coast Guard, the
Secret Service and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) whose activities are
linked to the security of national territory. It employs around 200,000 persons. The creation
of this Department involved the greatest bureaucratic reorganisation that the United
States has known since the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947. This
Presidential transition will thus be the first for this Department. It will be all the more
sensitive since, according to a Congressional report, ‘one of the recurrent problems
[DHS] is the over-politicisation of the highest ranks of its leadership.’21. This
means that a excessively large part of the managers of this structure is subjected to the
uncertainties of political change. For example, out of the ten main directors of FEMA, only
two are presently career civil servants.22 A report prepared by a private consulting company
estimates at 11% the ‘losses of leadership’ which the DHS will face during the transition of
2008-2009. 23

The problems are similar for the two other creations of the Bush administration - the ODNI
and the NCTC. The first is responsible for coordinating the activities of the American
intelligence community and was created in 2004 in the context of the most important reform
of the intelligence services since the creation of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in 1947.
The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) 24 reorganised the
operation of sixteen intelligence agencies around a Director of National Intelligence (DNI)
who is responsible for setting the objectives and the priorities in the domains of collecting,
processing, analysing and disseminating intelligence. The key figure in this set-up, the DNI,
is named by the President and is assisted by the ODNI, whose composition will likely be
modified by the next administration. Nonetheless, Mike McConnell, the current Director of
National Intelligence, has let it be known that he is prepared to keep his post for six months
following the inauguration of the next President in order to facilitate the transition.

In order to strengthen the efforts in the domain of counter-terrorism, the IRTPA also created
the NCTC to analyse and bring together all the intelligence that the United States has in the
area of terrorism. Its Director is also named by the President and reports both to the White
House and to the ODNI. This makes it a central element in the U.S. counter-terrorism efforts
which cannot be allowed to slow down its operations during such a sensitive period.

3. The limits of American vulnerability

The considerations and the risks which we have just mentioned have certainly been taken
into account in Washington, where a series of arrangements have been put in place by the
Bush administration. On this question, the debate is prolific and many recommendations
have been presented in order to facilitate the handover of power between the two Presidents.

􏰀 Arrangements intended to reduce the risks linked to the transition

The problems of transitions are nothing new for the American authorities who have always
looked for solutions to improve this process. One example in this context is the move forward
of the inauguration date of the new President from March 4 to January 20 by ratification of
the twentieth amendment in 1933.26 Similarly, President Kennedy had the Presidential
Transition Act of 1963 passed, permitting the elected candidate and his assistants to receive
government funds and premises in order to prepare to bring in their new administration in
the best circumstances.27

As regards the transition of 2008-2009, many measures have been taken to limit the period
of inertia which characterises the handover of power. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen have respectively asked a group of
civilians and a group of officers to prepare the Pentagon for the change of administration.
According to a memo of its president John Hamre, the Defense Policy Board identified
a certain number of points on which the new team in charge of the Department
of Defense should concentrate so as to be able to be effective from the moment
they take over their duties. On the military side, a transition team was set up within the
Joint Chiefs of Staff.28 Furthermore, in order to avoid high vacancy rates at the level of
deputy secretaries which, according to him often are higher than20% at the start of a new
term, Mr. Gates has enjoined the main civilian managers to be prepared to keep
their posts until their successor has been confirmed by the Senate. The objective
for the successor of Donald Rumsfeld is to avoid ‘having a lot of empty chairs on the civilian
side’29 during a war.

Under the direction of Michael Chertoff, the Department of Homeland Security has also
sought to anticipate the problems linked to this period by creating a working group which
presented its recommendations last January.30 A plan developed on the basis of these
proposals is supposed to be presented in October. Meanwhile, the DHS has
organised many conferences and exercises since February. The order of succession of
the Department was also reorganised to limit the ascendance of the holders of political
functions. In addition, twenty-five key posts were identified and high career civil
servants have been named to ensure the interim management.31 Thus, Nancy
Ward, who is responsible for the FEMA operation in Oakland, California, was chosen to
direct the federal agency for managing emergency situations until the person appointed by
the next President takes up his duties.32

􏰀 What remains to be done

The various published reports on the issues of the presidential transition, as well as the
interest shown by the press have made it possible to open a veritable debate around these questions. In the op-ed page of the Washington Post, Richard Armitage, the former Deputy
Secretary of State under Colin Powell and Michèle A. Flournoy, the former Assistant
Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration, call for the emergence of a
‘bipartisan consensus to put in place a process of accelerated screening and
confirmation for the 40 or 50 main members of the new President’s national
security team.’ 33 The authors also seek the commitment of the FBI and of the outgoing
administration. In a number of hearings by the appropriate Senate committees, the persons
named have had in fact to fill out more than sixty pages of forms and are subjected to
thorough verifications carried out by the FBI. They must also mention the scholarly
establishments in which they were enrolled and explain all their sojourns abroad, including
in Canada and Mexico, over the course of the past fifteen years.34

In parallel, Jamie Gorelick and Slade Gordon, two former members of the 9/11 Commission,
also came out in favour of drastic changes. They wanted first of all that the candidates be
given access not only to intelligence briefings but to the main dossiers and programmes
relating to national security. The authors then recommend that the candidates
provide, even before the election, the names of those whom they intend to
nominate in order that the competent authorities such as the FBI be able to
begin the investigations. The objective is that with the support of Congress, which would
be committed to organise the hearings of the nominees as from the very start of
the month of January, to ensure that the main posts can be filled from the day after the
inauguration of the new President. The two former members of the 9/11 Commission believe
that the persons put forward to perform the functions of director of an agency should, from
the day after the election, meet with those whom they will succeed in order to get used to
their new post under the best possible conditions.35

The two candidates in the presidential election have also made arrangements to anticipate
the presidential transition. Since the month of July, Barack Obama has put in place a team
charged with the task of planning the activities of this period should the Senator from Illinois
be elected on November 4.36 John McCain did the same in September when he entrusted the
preparation for his possible entrance into the White House to William E. Timmons, a former
member of the transition teams of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and of George W. Bush in 200037.
Nonetheless we note that the two candidates, whose arrangements with regard
to this matter have nothing innovative about them, do not seem to accord to the
issues relating to presidential transition an attention appropriate to what is at
stake. It even appears that the decisions taken by the two campaigns on this question have
been exploited for political ends. Right after the announcement of the Obama team, the
Republicans criticised the Democratic candidate for the arrogance of his decision. Similarly,
there are good chances that the lobbyist past of Mr. Timmons will be used by the team of the
Senator from Illinois to attack his counterpart from Arizona.

4. Conclusion

The first presidential transition after 9/11 constitutes a major challenge for the
entire government apparatus of the American state. The combination of
external and domestic threats, as well as the increased vulnerability of a part of
the administration which never experienced this process renders this period
particularly sensitive.

Nonetheless, it appears that the public debate which opened on these questions
made it possible for the various actors of this process to take measures in order
to facilitate the change of administration.

While an incident can always arise before or after the election, the main issue
for the incoming administration is to arrive on the day after the inauguration of
January 20 ready to assume its duties. For that to happen President Bush and
his successor must work together from the day after the election of November 4.
This cooperation will be essential to the preparation of the team of the next
occupant of the White House. While one may believe that the incoming
President will have to make good use of the eleven weeks before his taking up
his duties, much will depend on the good will of the administration in office. It
seems that President Bush is aware of this and will try to put his successor in
the best arrangements, because he certainly knows that an incident occurring
very early in the term of a new President can also tarnish his legacy.

Finally, the sheer weight of the process of screening and confirmation puts
forward the question of the politicisation of some functions of the American
government. Though from a democratic point of view the virtues of this system
are incontestable – France has even taken inspiration from it for its
constitutional reform – these procedures do not seem to be well suited to the
demands of the modern world and to the immediacy of the threats. The four
years of the term of a President of the United States is one of the shortest among
the Western democracies and it is no longer acceptable today that a department
like the Pentagon is not able to function in optimal manner during the first six
months of the new administration. Although awareness of these problems and
the ad hoc measures taken by each department are going to facilitate the next
transition, the next administration and the Congress should reflect deeply to ensure that long-lasting legislative measures are taken.

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