Pentagon ponders transition in time of war

Officials want to ensure the change to a new administration goes smoothly.

Virginia Mayo/AP
Smoothing the way: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels last week.

The Pentagon is making a pointed effort to ensure that the transition to a new administration in January 2009 – the first time in 40 years that a handover of power will take place during wartime – goes smoothly, minimizing the risk of disruptions or attacks on military operations during the changeover.

Many would like to see Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who succeeded Donald Rumsfeld in 2006, stay on to maintain continuity at a critical time. While it remains unlikely but possible that he is asked to stay by a new presidential nominee, Mr. Gates says he is focused on a smooth transition.

Gates and his chief uniformed adviser, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have separately charged two groups to prepare the Pentagon for the handover. This week, the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board will meet to discuss what specific issues the new Defense team must focus on to get off to "a running start," says an internal memo from John Hamre, chairman of the policy board. Also this week, a separate group of about a dozen uniformed officials led by Brig. Gen. Frank McKenzie of the Pentagon's Joint Staff will look at similar transition issues from inside the building.

Admiral Mullen is trying to put together "a transition team of folks within the Joint Staff that will help him provide the best advice to the new administration when they're in place," says a Pentagon official who asked not to be named. "How to keep it seamless at a period of time that it's not inconceivable that an enemy might want to take advantage of the changing government."

Beyond operational issues such as the wars overseas or Pentagon-related homeland defense, many issues have yet to be identified, officials say. Gates and Mullen are concerned that security intelligence is not waylaid by the changeover. Gates has asked political appointees in the Pentagon to stay through to the new administration.

But it will take more than just good planning inside the Pentagon, analysts say. Experts say Congress must expedite the nominations of new appointees to critical national security jobs.

Institutional loyalty

Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon official under President Clinton, worries that the "nobody home phenomenon" that occurs between administrations might put the country in a perilous state. Ms. Flournoy and Richard Armitage, a former State Department deputy secretary under President George W. Bush, are pushing for the new presidential nominee to provide a list of critical appointees within a month of being elected – December 1 of this year – so that Congress can act upon them quickly.

They also believe that all national security personnel should be kept in place until their replacements can be sworn in. Typically, political appointees begin to leave toward the end of an administration, leaving a void that normally has only a small effect.

But it will be largely up to Congress to put its partisan differences aside, she says. "They all talk about wanting a smooth transition, they all say the right things," says Flournoy. "The question is, are they willing to put their money where their mouth is … to make it work."

It will also be incumbent upon the new administration, regardless of political stripe, to approach the Pentagon carefully, says one retired senior military official who was on active duty when President Clinton won the White House as well as when President George Bush won it eight years later.

There were stark differences in the way the two administrations took over, he says. "The team that came in [under Clinton] basically trusted the institutional loyalty of those of us who were in the continuous jobs and so they felt that we were telling them the truth and that we weren't spinning things and giving them bad analysis," says the retired official. By contrast, Secretary Rumsfeld "didn't take advantage" of institutional knowledge from the start.

There was much talk of "Clinton generals," he says, betraying a political mindset toward the military that was ultimately detrimental to defense policy. "Some administration's civilians don't understand institutional loyalty, they only understand personal loyalty."

A longer tour for Gates?

Meanwhile, Gates's reputation for demanding accountability without trumpeting his own personality is popular across the department and in Congress, too. "I think he may be the best secretary of defense we ever had," says one active-duty Army officer in high-level circles.

Now, some would like him to stay on. One respected website devoted to irregular warfare called the Small Wars Journal contains an open letter to the new administration asking that whoever wins to consider keeping Gates.

And David Abshire, president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, speculates that Gates, while reluctant to stay, could remain in the Pentagon for a time. "I think that he would [consider] staying on, he might answer the call of duty that brought him here in the first place and stay on a year, that's what we need."

But Gates, who carries in his briefcase a special clock that counts down the days he has left in office, has made it clear he wouldn't stay. At the same time, Gates has left the door open ever so slightly with regard to being asked and accepting an extension of his appointment.

"I think he's pretty adamant about it," says another senior Pentagon official in uniform. Regardless of how many openings there might be in a new administration early next year, the official believes there will be a new cabinet member heading the Pentagon from Day 1.

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