Of all the challenges facing President-elect Obama between now and his inauguration, none are likely to be as consequential as ensuring that the nation's security and military operations aren't disrupted by the transition process. National Journal's James Kitfield spoke on Monday with a senior Defense Department official familiar with transition preparation, who was not authorized to speak on the record. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Q: Given the fact that the next administration will inherit two wars, a global financial crisis and a still potent threat from international terrorists, do you see this transition as being a particularly vulnerable period?
A: In looking at the history of presidential transitions as part of our preparation, this is the first war-time transition since President [Lyndon] Johnson turned power over to President [Richard] Nixon in 1968. That's a historical fact worth noting. So at the Pentagon we're uniquely aware of the many present dangers that pose a threat not only to U.S. forces in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to the American homeland as well. In that sense, this transition between administrations will be a uniquely sensitive period. That's why we're doing everything in our power to make it as seamless a process as possible.
Q: What lessons have you learned from past presidential transitions?
A: In looking at what characterized successful transitions of the past, and what separated them from some less successful transitions in terms of national security, the need for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to have an opportunity to really study and think through the issues well before the election stood out. That careful advanced preparation readies the chairman to give his best military advice to the new administration from day one. That's why the Joint Chiefs designated a transition team to begin that process and to start studying the issues last July. We wanted to get input from all the combatant commanders, and to prepare the chairman to offer his best advice to the new administration in a manner that doesn't shape or limit the policy options of the next administration.
Q: Why is it so important not to shape policy options?
A: Because while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs will offer his best military advice, we don't do policy. We do military operations in support of civilian policy initiatives. And it's certainly reasonable to assume there will be a shift in policies with a new administration. So we continue to track ongoing operations and anticipate how they might change as we adjust to the new policies of the next administration. That way the chairman of the Joint Chiefs can initiate a good discussion on those operations, give the risks associated with various courses of action and we'll all be ready to execute whatever policy the new administration decides on.
Q: That sounds very textbook, but can the Joint Chiefs really give their best military advice without trying to impact policy?
A: The situation we absolutely want to avoid is the chairman or Joint Staff meeting with the next administration's transition team for the first time and creating the impression that we're trying to shape the agenda or steer their decisions. We just can't afford to leave that impression. So we will be completely transparent in our actions, and as quickly as possible we want to show the next administration how best to utilize our capabilities and how best to interface with combatant commanders to guide policy in the direction they choose. Of course the chairman will offer his best military advice, and the next administration will be free to take it or leave it.
Q: In past presidential transitions it's taken new administrations more than eight months on average to staff the government with sub-Cabinet appointees. Given the dangers we talked about, do you think the nation can afford to wait eight months before the next administration fully hits its stride?
A: I think it's very much in the nation's interest that we fill presidential appointments as soon as possible. The current administration took some steps to expedite that process, such as inviting both campaigns to give lists of potential nominees in order to start the security clearance process well before the election, and that effort is ongoing. Of course, Congress plays a big role in determining how quickly nominations move, and I think the urgency of the situation is well understood on Capitol Hill. I expect nominations to move faster than normal, but this is a problem that needs fixing.
Q: What kind of transition schedule do you foresee?
A: We anticipate that shortly after the election members of the transition team will show up at the Pentagon and initiate talks at the level of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The Joint Staff will be prepared to engage in those talks as requested.
Q: Was there any advance contact between the campaigns and the Pentagon to shorten the learning curve?
A: No, we were prohibited from dealing with any campaign representatives by order of the White House. I would also point out that the chairman knows that we have a sitting president until January 20, 2009, and he deserves our complete support and loyalty. There cannot be any sense of shared responsibility. That's why when the small transition team was established it was walled off from the rest of the Joint Staff, so no one lost focus on ongoing operations. While everyone else continued with their daily business, the transition team looked for ways to help the chairman frame his advice for the next administration.
Q: In the gap between the election and the staffing of a new administration, can the Joint Staff help serve as backfill for the many political appointees who leave the Pentagon?
A: No, as the political appointees in the Office of the Secretary of Defense leave, career civil servants will step into those positions on an acting basis. It's in no one's interest that we militarize those positions. What the Joint Staff will do is be proactive in trying to provide those civilian professionals with whatever help they need. The point I would emphasize is there really is no void created. We just lose one layer of depth in OSD. Good career civilians will step in as placeholders until the next appointees arrive, with all the responsibilities those positions entail.
Q: Do you have any advice for those potential new appointees?
A: There are 49 core presidential appointees in the Pentagon at the secretary, service secretary and principal deputy levels -- with many more below them -- and I would just stress to all of them that the period of transition before they actually assume their new duties is a profoundly valuable time, and I hope they take advantage of it. They will have a rare opportunity to really study an issue or problem without the press of day-to-day business, which can get so distracting around here that it's often all but impossible to contemplate long-term strategy.
Q: And what marching orders do you give those inside the Pentagon to make the transition as smooth as possible?
A: We want to do absolutely everything possible to shorten the learning curve for the new administration's national security team. We want to shrink that gap between administrations that we are all worried about. If the past is any indicator, many of the officials in the new administration will have already served in the Pentagon or national security structure in some capacity, and hopefully that will further shorten the learning curve.