Perhaps the most important organizational and policy element of a contemporary presidential transition is the national security piece. The stakes involved in having a smooth organizational transition could not be higher. In fact, continuity in the knowledge of national security and foreign policy from one administration to the next is key to a safe and smooth transition in the post-9/11 world. The transition teams for President George W. Bush and President-elect Obama understood that. Since the creation of the National Security Council (NSC) in the National Security Act of 1947, the national security advisor has been a critical figure synthesizing military, intelligence, and foreign policy information for the president and his White House team. (1)
In addition to demonstrating how a crucial area of transition planning is organized, the national security piece of a transition into the White House demonstrates some other important aspects of the passage of power. One can see how the most significant area of a presidential transition is fashioned and what the differences are between a transition out of office and one coming in. In viewing the preparations out of office made by President George W. Bush's National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley and his NSC staff, we see what the opportunities are for making a good exit and how it can be effectively done in a way that serves the interests of both administrations. We also see the not-so-easy questions that require an answer before the policy issues can be addressed as well as the organizational issues, including personnel matters, one has to deal with coming into the White House as head of the NSC staff.
Steve Hadley was in an excellent position to run the NSC transition out of office because he understood well what past patterns of transition preparations were. He served on the NSC staffs of Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush as well as for a brief period in the Carter White House. The experiences of General James L. Jones, Jr., provide us with a sense of the stack of decisions the NSC advisor, or any senior White House official with organizational responsibilities, has to consider during the transition and in the early months of an administration. General Jones did not have previous White House experience, but he was well versed on foreign policy and military issues and dealt with national security officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations through his positions as commander of the U.S. European Command and as Supreme Commander Europe (SACEUR/EUCOM) and earlier as commandant of the Marine Corps.
The outgoing administration is in a favorable position planning its transition out of office because there are few rules governing the terms on which it leaves. The incumbent president and his team have the choice of how much time to devote to the transition and the power to choose when to begin and what information to provide. As they do their planning, those in office have the advantage as well of having settled relationships with the incumbent president and the senior White House staff. In conjunction with the president, the national security advisor decides what information to provide. There is no downside to early preparation because providing assistance to the incoming administration, no matter the party, is in the national interest and also works to the advantage of the outgoing president. The information the NSC gathers for the incoming team works well for the legacy of the outgoing president because the materials provide a wrap-up of what the administration faced while in office and what the administration's responses were. When you are leaving office, you can work far ahead of time on preparing information with several purposes. You can make your own administration look good, make the president look good, and help the incoming national security advisor, which is a good government move. Aces all around for the team leaving.
For the incoming national security advisor, there is no smooth road. (2) You are squeezed for time and within weeks have to make initial decisions on organization, policy, and personnel. An NSC advisor is going to be chosen and begin work sometime after the election. In General Jones's case, it was around Thanksgiving when he signed on to the new administration and December 1 when his appointment was formally announced. The outgoing team can work effectively coordinating information because the advisor has established relationships around the federal government that he can call on to help him gather the information he needs. When you are coming in as the NSC advisor, you are doing so without a clear road map of how to make the office reflect and support the incoming president. In a short period of time, the NSC advisor needs to set up a decision-making process reflecting the chief executive's interests and stated preferences. Organizationally, you work through personnel, budget, and structural issues relating to the office as you are trying to establish your agenda and tee up your initiatives. With a staff of approximately 200 policy people, there is a great deal of organizational work to be done in the short space of 77 days (Hadley 2009). Together, Steve Hadley and General Jones provide good studies of the advantages and perils of leaving and arriving in the West Wing office.
Particularly in 2008, both incoming and outgoing officials recognized the vulnerability of the transition period. "At a time of war, you don't want there to be any gaps, but particularly any extended gaps in having knowledgeable people [in office]," commented Joe Hagin, deputy White House chief of staff for a good portion of the final year of the George W. Bush administration (Hagin 2008). From a national security point of view, continuity in government is crucial. Transitions represent periods when the government is changing hands and is thus particularly vulnerable. Those preparing for the 2008 transition had sobering examples to consider as they prepared the way for a new administration. "In June 2007, for example, three days after Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office in the United Kingdom, there were terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London. The March 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people came three days before that country's general election. With wars in Afghanistan and Iraq underway, continuity in governing was essential" (Kumar 2008a, 614).
Even before the 9/11 attacks, the early months were vulnerable ones for a president. Sometimes presidents have had to simultaneously deal with multiple national security issues in their early months. President Bill Clinton had to deal with different types of threats within his first two months in office. Two incidents were domestic terrorist attacks and a third, eight months later, involved attacks on our troops in Somalia stationed there for humanitarian purposes as part of a United Nations operation begun late in the presidency of George H. W. Bush. On the domestic front, February 26, 1993, President Clinton was in office barely a month when there was a terrorist bombing under the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Two days later, four Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents were killed in a gun battle in Waco, Texas, where they were trying to serve a warrant on religious cult leader David Koresh. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) then took over the law enforcement effort, which lasted 50 days when on April 19 a second assault resulted in a fire that destroyed the Branch Davidian complex with 75 people dead. Janet Reno, who would oversee the FBI and its efforts, was sworn in as attorney general on March 11 barely a month prior to the siege at Waco. When a president and his Cabinet secretaries come into office, they must prepare for uncertainty at home but abroad as well.
In their book Difficult Transitions: Foreign Policy Troubles at the Outset of Presidential Power, Kurt M. Campbell and James B. Steinberg discuss the critical national security issues incoming presidents have faced. "The option of postponing decisions until the new president takes office is often unavailable when it comes to unfolding national security problems," they said (Campbell and Steinberg 2008, 25). Whether it was the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or Iraq and Afghanistan, presidents-elect have to be ready to cope with conflicts underway during the transition period. Some incoming presidents also had to consider national security plans underway as the new chief executive came in. In looking back at the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion for which President John E Kennedy provided the green light, Kennedy explained the dilemma confronting a chief executive in the national security area. "If someone comes in to tell me this or that about the minimum wage bill I have no hesitation in overruling them. But you always assume that the military and intelligence people have some secret skill not available to ordinary mortals, Kennedy said" (Campbell and Steinberg 2008, 27).
The only antidote to a situation where the president or president-elect lacks the intelligence and the tools to cope with the event or crisis is information and a knowledgeable staff. The outgoing Bush administration provided information to the incoming administration of Barack Obama and he in turn made early appointment decisions that allowed his national security team to get information from the incumbent administration well before the inauguration. Throughout the preparations for the 2008 changeover of power between the outgoing and incoming administrations, there were two key elements that facilitated an effective start for the NSC as well as for other administrative units. First in importance for the NSC were the face-to-face briefings and conversations of those leaving office with the people coming in.
In these principal-to-principal sessions the outgoing people openly discussed with their incoming counterparts...