By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008
The U.S. military, bracing for the first wartime presidential transition in 40 years, is preparing for potential crises during the vulnerable handover period, including possible attacks by al-Qaeda and destabilizing developments in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to senior military officials.
"I think the enemy could well take advantage" of the transfer of power in Washington, said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, who launched preparations for the transition months ago, and who will brief the president-elect, the defense secretary nominee and other incoming officials on crisis management and how to run the military.
Officials are working "to make sure we are postured the right way around the world militarily, that our intelligence is focused on this issue, and in day-to-day operations the military is making sure it does not happen," Mullen said in an interview. "If it does happen, we need to be in a position to respond before and after the inauguration."
Mullen, who will serve at least another year in his two-year appointment as the nation's top military officer, expects to provide critical continuity between the two administrations at a dangerous juncture, the senior officials said. He "will be in effect the bridge between the two," said a senior military official familiar with Mullen's transition team, made up of 14 senior officers from across the services.
The military's primary focus during the transition is twofold: to heighten preparations for a crisis requiring military force, and to anticipate and advise the incoming administration on likely new directions in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said. High-level briefings on the risks and benefits of new strategies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as longer-term issues such as military modernization, are already being prepared for national security officials of the incoming administration, they said.
Historically, transition periods are times "of significant vulnerability. . . . The number of major incidents is alarming," Mullen said. In presentations he uses a chart that highlights pre- and post-inauguration crises from the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A second, classified chart shows the biggest threats today. "I run out the worst-case scenarios," Mullen said.
A presidential transition in the midst of two major conflicts and the ongoing threat of terrorism raises the stakes even further, officials said. "It is particularly important now because we're turning over in wartime. . . . The last time was in 1968, when we turned over from President Johnson to President Nixon," said a senior military official. "You'd like to think that certainly now military advice has got a lot more respect than it did in 1968 and 1969, but nonetheless the pressures of a wartime transition of authority are great, particularly in a democracy."
In recent days, commentaries on Web sites linked to al-Qaeda have suggested that a terrorist strike might swing the U.S. presidential election in favor of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), leading to an expansion of U.S. military commitments in the Islamic world and further "exhausting" the United States.
Senior military officials and national security experts say major threats before and after the elections include an al-Qaeda strike on the United States that would originate from Pakistan's tribal areas, as well as a terrorist attack involving nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
"With the election, the economic issues and what is going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan, all this converging at once, it makes a pretty enticing target for al-Qaeda to consider disrupting U.S. national security interests in the short term," said John Rollins, a terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service.
Recent examples of terrorist activity during political transitions in the United States and elsewhere include the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, just after President Bill Clinton's inauguration; the Sept. 11 attacks, within the first eight months of the Bush administration; as well as the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the discovery of the London car-bomb plot in 2007, both of which fell within days of major political events.
The goals of such an attack could include swaying the election, testing a new administration and demonstrating a continued ability to attack U.S. interests at will, Rollins said.
The military is also watching closely for destabilizing events in Iraq and Afghanistan, while monitoring Iran's nuclear activities, Russia's military presence in Georgia and other areas of concern, a senior military official said.
The Joint Staff transition team -- with input from the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy chiefs and regional military commanders -- is now focused mainly on preparing the briefings that Mullen will use to advise the incoming president and the presumptive defense secretary.
After the Nov. 4 elections, the team will facilitate Mullen's top-level briefings while starting immediately to instruct new senior administration officials on how to run the military.
"The day after the election, the winning party will come over and occupy this building, and they will be the first wave of the transition," said the senior official familiar with Mullen's team. A new defense secretary is likely to be named in December, and he or she will then bring a second wave of new officials to the Pentagon, the official said.
"A new administration will certainly want to do some things differently; whether it's Senator Obama or Senator McCain, they're going to approach problems from a different angle," the official said. Mullen must therefore be prepared to offer advice on a range of new policies for the war zones, such as a more rapid withdrawal from Iraq.
Yet while senior military officers typically view themselves as a bridge between administrations, the incoming political team may distrust their loyalties.
"Despite the military's self-image that they are above politics and are servants of the nation, there frequently is the perception that the senior levels of generals are the choices of the previous administration and are somehow tainted," said one retired Army general. "We saw this at the beginning of the Clinton era and the Bush era. There is a suspicion these are somebody else's generals and not as objective." As a result, senior military leaders must work hard to "navigate the center course," he said.
Mullen has asked the transition team, led by Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., to anticipate and prepare for a number of changes -- from whom the new administration will pick for its top defense officials to what new policies it may adopt, particularly for Iraq and Afghanistan.
The team reports to a senior Pentagon steering group set up for the transition that includes Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and other senior military and defense leaders and is chaired by Gates's special assistant, Robert Rangel.
Mullen's team will carry out exercises to show new administration officials the mechanics of handling a crisis. "We will . . . show them how you actually operate the levers of the military power of the United States," said the official familiar with the team.
"You don't want to go cold in a crisis, without having established a common framework of understanding" and a rapport between the incoming Pentagon leadership and Mullen and other top military officers, he said. "Anything we can do to shorten the learning curve . . . will help."