WASHINGTON — In the search for answers after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, an independent commission identified the delayed presidential transition that followed the disputed 2000 election as one of numerous failures that prevented officials in President George W. Bush’s administration from foreseeing the tragedy.
While the slow handover wasn’t a major factor, the commission found it hampered the filling of key national security positions. The group recommended changes to speed up the appointment process to avoid hindering future incoming administrations from identifying threats.
But as President Trump continues to dispute the election results and his administration blocks President-elect Joe Biden from starting the transition, national security experts warn that delays are once again putting the country at risk.
“If you are going to be responsible for the security of the American people, both the incoming administration and the outgoing administration have to cooperate,” said Michael Chertoff, who served as Homeland Security secretary under Bush. “To delay the transition process is to really play Russian roulette . . . with the safety of the American people.”
Trump further roiled the national security apparatus this week when he fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Monday. Trump then ousted three other top Pentagon officials and replaced them with loyalists.
There could be plausible explanations for the shakeup, including personal motivation on the part of a score-settling president that “point more toward an administration knowing that it will be exiting come January rather than trying to hold onto power,” said Ryan Goodman, a former top lawyer at the Defense Department.
But Goodman, a professor at New York University School of Law, said the chaos created by Trump “underscores how irresponsible it is for any Republican politicians to refrain from congratulating and helping usher in President-elect Biden to help smooth the transition and communicate stability to America’s enemies and allies alike.”
The delay is preventing Biden’s staff from beginning time-consuming background checks, obtaining intelligence briefings, and ramping up their knowledge on military and covert operations around the world. The deficiencies could put troops and intelligence officers in danger and hinder the incoming administration from carrying out new policies, putting senior-level officials into place — and in some cases, from obtaining Senate confirmations, Goodman and other specialists said.
The delay is all the more concerning in the midst of a raging pandemic, “the largest national security issue facing the country at the moment,” said Kate Shaw, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who served in the White House Counsel’s Office under President Barack Obama.
“Even 75 days is not a huge amount of time when it comes to getting up to speed on the range of threats and issues facing the country, and every day that passes without this access being granted puts the Biden team in a more and more difficult position when it comes to hitting the ground running,” she said.
Biden won the election on a platform centered on his Washington experience and his ability “to do the job on day one.” He will enter the White House with an advantage having served as vice president for eight years under Obama and for decades as a senator. Biden has already spoken with some world leaders — calls his team had to set up without help from the State Department — and is forging ahead with building his administration. On Monday, he announced a COVID-19 Transition Advisory Board staffed with doctors and public health experts.
“We are fortunate that it is former vice president Biden who is coming in and is prepared in the national security arena, but it is dangerous,” Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, said of Trump’s efforts to stall the handover. “The peaceful transition of power has been the hallmark of our democracy for 200 years.”
Biden’s incoming administration has access to some government office space, and his team started coordinating about a potential transition with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows prior to the election. But more than $9 million in transition funding — and the ability to fully cooperate with agencies— remains in the balance as Trump appointee Emily Murphy, who heads the federal General Services Administration, so far has declined to designate Biden as the apparent winner of the election.
Among the material Biden is not yet receiving is the President’s Daily Brief. Known in Washington as the “PDB,” the compilation of high-level and sensitive material is the so-called crown jewel of the intelligence community and is released only to the president, vice president, and a small circle of top officials. As part of the transition, it is made available to the president-elect and his team.
Trump reportedly doesn’t read it. But it’s crucial for Biden so he can get up to speed before taking office, with a value that is cumulative, intelligence officials and experts said.
“Each PDB builds on the other,” said William Inboden, who heads the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. “For the president-elect, you don’t want them to see that in the first day in office.”
Biden, who received the PDB every day as vice president, said Tuesday that he was not overly concerned.
“Access to classified information is useful, but I’m not in a position to make any decisions on those issues anyway,” Biden said. “It would be nice to have it, but it’s not critical.”
The chaos and distraction from the Trump administration comes during a tumultuous time for US foreign relations, and it could leave the country vulnerable to exploitation from terrorists and other foreign adversaries. In the run-up to the presidential election alone, cyber attacks on US health care systems seemed to be lost in the shuffle, analysts said.
“It is a very risky play that the Trump administration is making here,” said Cedric Leighton, a military analyst and former Air Force intelligence officer who served as a congressional liaison during the transition to the Bush administration after the 2000 election.
Even after past contentious elections, incoming and outgoing presidents have tended to work together for the good of the nation, intelligence officials and specialists said. In one example now lost to time, unusual cooperation between the Carter and Reagan administrations was key to saving the life of South Korean opposition political leader Kim dae Jung, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
The bipartisan 9/11 Commission report issued in 2004 spurred a series of changes to improve and hasten the presidential transition, allowing incoming administrations access to crucial intelligence information and to begin the security clearance process for key hires prior to Inauguration Day. Foreign intelligence officials and national security experts say such actions allow for a continuity between administrations that is critical to maintaining stable diplomatic relations and thwarting global threats.
The commission didn’t pin the blame for the terrorist attacks on the chaotic 2000 transition. But Leighton and other officials who were part of the Bush transition team said the lengthy delays amid legal fights over a recount in Florida didn’t help. Having only half the usual time to put together briefings on national security operations and priorities likely led intelligence analysts to miss warning flags and fail to connect important pieces of information, Leighton said.
“Those attacks would have probably occurred regardless of who was in power, but the fact that we had this confusing transition period allowed a lot of those things to fall through the cracks,” Leighton said.
As a result of the lessons learned, Chertoff and other Bush administration officials said they began preparing for the presidential transition more than a year in advance of the 2008 election. Inboden, a Republican who served on Bush’s National Security Council, recalls he and other staff members keeping top Democratic candidates Obama and Hillary Clinton up to date on nonclassified intelligence operations in case one of them won the election.
Most of Biden’s incoming senior staff already have security clearances and providing them access to classified intelligence information would not preclude Trump from continuing to challenge the election results in court, Inboden said.
“There is only an upside to it,” he said. “There is no downside risk. It is just being responsible and patriotic."