The 2008-2009 Presidential Transition through the Voices of Its Participants
Kumar, Martha Joynt, Presidential Studies Quarterly
It was mid-morning at the White House on January 20, 2009. President and Mrs. George W. Bush were hosting the traditional pre-inauguration coffee in the Blue Room for President-Elect and Mrs. Barack Obama, as well as the Cheneys and the Bidens. Meanwhile, the chiefs of staff for the outgoing and incoming chief executives, Joshua Bolten and Rahm Emanuel, went over to the Situation Room in the West Wing, where they joined the national security teams for both administrations. They were alert to new developments in an unfolding security threat pegged to the inauguration, which would be witnessed by millions throughout the world. By this point, the principals of both national security teams knew one another from their group crisis training sessions and their one-on-one meetings that had begun before the election. And the Bush administration had prepared information for officials from the Obama team. "We talked about a threat to the inauguration, which had just surfaced in the last 24 hours. And the FBI briefed the threat--the intelligence community briefed the threat, what we were doing about it, how credible we thought it was.... it involved an attack on the mall," said National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who was in the room and involved in the response. The night before the inauguration, an FBI/Homeland Security bulletin issued to state and local law enforcement identified a possible threat to the event from al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based Islamist group with links to al Qaeda (Hsu 2009). (1)
Hadley recalled that the session that morning "went almost three hours [with] the incoming and outgoing core teams of the National Security Council ... I was there, Condi [Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] was there, [Secretary of Defense] Bob Gates was there, [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Admiral Mullen was there, [Central Intelligence Agency Director] Mike Hayden was there, [Director of National Intelligence] Mike McConnell was there.... we had the Attorney General [Michael Mukasey] as well, and [FBI Director] Bob Mueller came for part of it. And we had [the] rough counterparts on the other side [officials named to those positions by President-Elect Obama]" (Hadley 2009).
Cabinet members and designees felt sufficiently comfortable with one another to discuss responses the incoming president could have. "Senator [Hillary] Clinton really showed ... the sense of both a politician and also [was] able to see things from the president's perspective. And she asked the best question of the meeting, which was 'So what should Barack Obama do if he's in the middle of his inaugural address, and a bomb goes off way in the back of the crowd somewhere on the mall? What does he do? Is the Secret Service going to whisk him off the program--or the podium, so the American people see their incoming president disappear in the middle of the inaugural address? I don't think so.'" The threat discussion with all of the principal officials in the outgoing and incoming administrations allowed everyone to work through a potential crisis event on the first day for Barack Obama and the last one for George W. Bush. It also demonstrated how well people were able to work together. Joshua Bolten commented about the handling of the situation: "Rahm was well informed and he had informed Obama about what was going on. So at that moment I was proud of the way that we had managed to integrate the incoming folks into the management of a potential crisis" (Bolten 2009).
The crisis management operation that morning illustrates several aspects of the 2008-2009 transition that made the period a successful transfer of power. First, since 2001, Congress, the president, and the executive branch have made decisions that indirectly as well as directly had an impact on the transition, especially in the national security area. Second, members of the incoming administration worked with administration records of White House office structures, administration operations, and personnel processes and with former government officials experienced in past transitions. Together, the records and the people represent an institutional memory of what worked in past transitions and what did not. Third, unprecedented early transition planning and actions by the George W. Bush administration led to a new level of cooperation between the outgoing and incoming administrations. Fourth, the move from campaigning to government was eased by the early attention by Senator and then President-Elect Barack Obama to the need for transition planning and his assignment of experienced and knowledgeable people to handle studies of White House staff structure, agency operations, policy development, and staff selection. All of these factors helped create an environment in which President Obama took the oath of office and entered the White House on January 20 with a decision-making system of his choice, policy initiatives ready to present to the public and to Congress, a sense of his priorities, and a personnel process under way. That is what a well-prepared transition can buy for an incoming president. It doesn't happen by chance; it requires solid preparation from the outgoing as well as the incoming administration to achieve a smooth hand over of power, especially when there is a change of parties involved.
The focus of this article is the thoughts and reflections of those involved in the most recent presidential transition. The time period begins with the early stirrings of transition preparations in 2007 and continues up to the inauguration. Developed through interviews with those active in the transition, the piece describes the actions officials took and their thoughts about what happened during the pre-presidential period. I began the interviews in early January 2009 and continued them through June. Most of the major figures in the transition are on the record here. All of the quotes from officials and transition participants in this article come from interviews that I conducted with the quoted individuals, who are listed in the references with the dates when I interviewed them. All of the interviews took place in Washington, D.C. The ground rules for the interviews were that they were on the record with an option to put some information on background or off the record. No one put information on background, and only two people had any information of consequence that was off the record, most of which did not deal with the transition. The Bush White House officials interviewed who worked on the outgoing transition include Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten; Deputy Chief of Staff Joel Kaplan; National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley; Press Secretary Dana Perino; Counselor Ed Gillespie; Communications Director Kevin Sullivan; Deputy for Management of the Office of Management and Budget Clay Johnson; and Robert Shea, chief staff aide to Clay Johnson. The people I interviewed who worked for or in the transition operation of President Barack Obama include John Podesta, co-chair of the Obama transition; White House Cabinet Secretary Christopher Lu, executive director for the transition; Don Gips, White House personnel director and head of the agency review teams following the election; Press Secretary Robert Gibbs; Deputy Press Secretary Joshua Earnest; Communications Director Ellen Moran; Deputy Communications Director Dan Pfieffer; and Harrison Wellford, a former government official and Washington lawyer who worked on White House organization in an early transition initiative beginning in late spring that continued until the administration took office. Other transition participants whom I interviewed include William Ball, the representative of Senator John McCain's campaign who dealt with the White House and government agencies, and Gail Lovelace, transition director for the General Services Administration (GSA). Not all of those who were interviewed are quoted here, but they still proved important to the portrait of how transition operations worked.
Government Security Initiatives with an Impact on the Transition
One of the aspects that made the 2008-2009 transition such a well-thought-out one was the groundwork laid by government actions taken to enhance national security. Congress and the president viewed a smooth transition as a national security necessity, and both branches took action on issues related to getting a new administration up and running as soon as possible. The impetus for much of their preparatory work was the events of September 11, 2001. The attacks on the United States that day had a substantial impact on the shape of the 2008-2009 transition. In two particular subject areas discussed here, the recommendations of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission) shaped the course of the 2008-2009 presidential transition. Security clearances for administration nominees and contingency crisis plans are areas in which Congress and the administration took action. These two issues areas provide us with examples of the ways in which national security issues were important in guiding the presidential transition. There are other transition security issues as well, such as those concerned with ensuring a smooth first transition for the Department of Homeland Security, but our discussion is focused on the examples of security clearances and contingency plans.
The government adopted the 9/11 Commission recommendations to improve the national security clearance process and to gather and provide information on security threats. In recent transitions, security clearances have consistently been an issue because they represent a major pinch point in getting presidential appointees from announcement to confirmation. The appointment process itself is notoriously slow, with the result that it takes an extended number of months to get a new government up and running with a president's political employees in place. Effectively gathering and sharing security threat information was an important concern after the September 11 attacks, and a central feature of the 9/11 Commission report to Congress.
Revamping Security Clearances for Presidential Appointees
The 9/11 commissioners criticized the lack of a full complement of presidential appointees in national security positions at the time of the terrorist attacks. One of their recommendations to Congress and the president was to see future national security teams in place sooner than was the case in 2001.
Since a catastrophic attack could occur with little or no notice, we should minimize as much as possible the disruption of national security policymaking during the change of administrations by accelerating the process for national security appointments. We think the process could be improved significantly so transitions can work more effectively and allow new officials to assume their new responsibilities as quickly as possible. (9/11 Commission Report, 422)
Congress and the president responded to the commission's recommendations for a smooth transition by providing in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 for changes in the security clearance process for nominees to executive branch positions. In the section on presidential transitions, the act calls for the president-elect to submit names for clearance as soon as possible after the election results are affirmed.
The President-elect should submit to the Federal Bureau of Investigation or other appropriate agency and then, upon taking effect and designation, to the agency designated by the President under section 115(b) of the National Intelligence-Reform Act of 2004, the names of candidates for high level national security positions through the level of undersecretary of cabinet departments as soon as possible after the date of the general elections held to determine the electors of President and Vice President under section 1 or 2 of title 3, United States Code. (Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, Sec. 7601 Presidential Transition, [f])
At the same time, the act provides that the two major party candidates can begin setting up their organizations for the transition by submitting names for national security clearance prior to election day. "Each major party candidate for President may submit, before the date of the general election, requests for security clearances for prospective transition team members who will have a need for access to classified information to carry out their responsibilities as members of the President elect's transition team" (Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 [c]). This section of the act was a potentially useful tool for the presidential candidates. They could submit names to the FBI for security clearances so that the eventual victor could be prepared for national security events on election day and following the election.
The White House was particularly interested in having the transition teams for the presidential candidates make effective use of the new legal provision allowing the candidates to clear their names early. Joshua Bolten talked about his discussions with representatives of the candidates. "I thought the most important thing for them to focus on was the personnel side and that they really needed to get that going early; that we were there, ready to use the authorities from the legislation to get them clearances and that we wanted to put in place a mechanism that would permit them, without fear of compromise either on the general issue of being presumptive and sort of arrogantly starting to name people, or on just the specific side of names getting out." The question for Bolten was how to create a way for the transition teams to submit names without leaks to reporters and others. "We were keen to put in place a mechanism and a commitment that they would face no risk from us, the White House, in pushing that process forward. Both sides were, I thought, naturally reticent about taking a political ding for naming people too early and I think the Obama people might have been nervous that if they gave us names that we would leak the names. But we were able to assure them that we were not going to make the situation any worse for them."
The Obama transition team began submitting names in the summer of 2008 after they met with Justice Department officials in a joint discussion with Republican presidential nominee Senator McCain's representative to discuss transition resources. Chris Lu, executive director of the Obama transition, described the Bush administration's effort to implement the clear-early provision in the 2004 act. "One of the things we had to do was get security clearances for our folks, because there was a whole group of people who would need access to classified information ... on November 5th.... They said first, 'Shoot for maybe submitting a hundred people's names for clearances, for interim clearances.' ... We probably submitted about 150, 200 [names]. We submitted well more than a hundred."
The Obama transition operation made early use of the law's new allowance section and submitted the names of people they wanted in their administration. There was no requirement in the law or by the agencies performing the clearances that those submitting the names stipulate the positions to be held along with the identity of people the presidential candidate wanted to serve in his administration. In early December, David Shedd, deputy director of national intelligence for policy, reported to attendees at a meeting of President Bush's Transition Coordinating Council that President-Elect Obama received the President's Daily Brief from the Bush intelligence community, as had Rahm Emanuel, his designated White House chief of staff. "Not a single daily briefing has been missed," Shedd reported (author's notes, Transition Coordinating Council meeting, December 4, 2009). (2) Emanuel could only have participated with an FBI security clearance.
Should Senator McCain have been elected in November, the situation would have been different because of a decision that he made. The McCain transition team would have had no one cleared to work on information requiring a national security clearance unless they had come to work for McCain with a current, preexisting clearance. Will Ball, Senator McCain's representative who met with Bush administration officials and served on the transition board, said that they did not submit any names to the FBI for review during the transition period. "We met with the Justice Department, FBI, and IRS representatives about the process, but we did not turn names in to initiate the process. We had lists of names compiled internally for Senator McCain, but he did not wish at that point to turn names in to begin the clearance process on any individual." Discussed later in the article, in part McCain feared appearing presumptuous if names submitted to the FBI prior to November 5 leaked to the press.
Further Streamlining the Nomination Process
The Bush administration tried to reduce the time needed to perform a national security investigation in advance of the transition period. Clay Johnson, the deputy for management at the Office of Management and Budget, used several approaches to reach the goal of getting presidential appointees requiring Senate confirmation (PAS) into office earlier than was true in 2000-2001. Johnson said his focus was twofold: "Expand the capacity to do the work and shorten the process, the elapsed time."
There were three ways the Bush administration sought to increase capacity. First, require the FBI, the agency conducting many of the national security clearance investigations, to reduce the amount of time it takes to conduct an investigation and, second, have the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) do investigations as well. Johnson explained how the government determines how many clearances need to be done and then asks the FBI to figure out what resources it needs to reach that goal: "You go to the FBI and you say you need to figure out what sort of staff you need to be able to do this in 30 days, maximum. It used to take 60 days on average, including filling out the paperwork for the applicant. Sixty days average is not …
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Publication information: Article title: The 2008-2009 Presidential Transition through the Voices of Its Participants. Contributors: Kumar, Martha Joynt - Author. Journal title: Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume: 39. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2009. Page number: 823+. © 1999 Center for the Study of the Presidency. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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