National Security During Transition

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Last week the Congressional Research Service released a report noting: “A presidential transition is a unique time in America and holds . . . a possible risk to the nation’s security interests.” It cites Frances Townsend, who used to be President Bush’s homeland security advisor, as saying that Al Qaeda targeted terror attacks around the Spanish and British elections in recent years and that it “wants to influence elections and have political influence.”

The report’s author, John Rollins, is a specialist in terrorism and national security. He recommends several activities to facilitate a smooth transition in power in the face of potential threats. These include:

· Involving the national security representatives of presidential hopefuls in all transition-related discussions and holding a table-top exercise after the election so the incoming team can understand and test the national security coordination system;

· Establishing a joint advisory council that draws on the expertise of both the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council to address transition-related risks;

· Passing the FY2009 appropriations without undue delay,

· Quickly assigning congressional committee members to committees focused on national security, and

· Appointing career civil servants to mid- and high-level positions in national security areas to provide continuity during the transition.

He cited several little-known resources, including a January 2008 presidential transition report prepared by President Bush’s Homeland Security Advisory Council. That report encourages information exchanges and collaborative efforts by the Department of Homeland Security with major party candidates.

Rollins’ report discusses a provision added in the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act which “allows each major party candidate for President to submit, before the date of the general election, requests for security clearances of prospective transition team members” who would require access to classified information during the transition. This would mean background investigations would be completed by the day after the election. The Act also requires the outgoing Administration to prepare a classified report of specific operational threats pending at the time.

Rollins also notes that outgoing President Bush may want to create a Presidential Transition National Security Coordinating Council to oversee national security-related transition activities. This might include the coordination of training and orientation, and offering lessons learned from past national security activities.

The incoming President-Elect should develop a prioritized list of names to fill key national security leadership positions and Congress should act on them quickly. Rollins notes that at the time of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, less than half of the key positions in the government had been filled.

Rollins noted that the law allows federal career employees to be detailed to the incoming President-Elect’s transition team for national security purposes. He also noted that Congress required the Department of Homeland Security to develop a transition and succession plan (section 2405) to be presented to the incoming Secretary and Undersecretary for Management, and this plan is due December 1, 2008. (A recent media report notes that some members of Congress want to see that plan now).

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