Why a tough transition is a “risk” to US security (and sparks memories of 9/11)

The handover of power, always complex even if it is friendly, now faces new challenges that alarm security experts

“And what happens to the president-elect if a bomb explodes during the inauguration?”

This question, according to The New York Times newspaper , was asked in January 2009 by Hillary Clinton to Condoleezza Rice , who then held the position of head of US diplomacy.

This scene in the White House a few hours before Barack Obama took office as president, is a reflection of the collaborative work that existed between the outgoing and incoming George W. Bush administrations , and the threats to security. national that both had in mind.

Now it seems unlikely that a meeting like this could take place between the team of President-elect Joe Biden , and that of Donald Trump , who refuses to recognize the triumph of his rival in the elections on November 3.

Trump and Obama
Obama welcomed Trump in 2016 and promised a gentle transition to the president-elect.

Traditionally in the US, transfers of power between administrations are usually friendly, but even in those cases it is a complex process.

Much more in this current context in which the outgoing president does not recognize the incoming.

“More people can die if we don’t coordinate,” Biden said Monday about the health crisis facing the country due to the coronavirus and the White House’s refusal to cooperate with the team that the president-elect has created to deal with the pandemic.

In addition, joint work in Congress between Democrats and Republicans is urgent for the approval of a package of aid, especially given the possibility of a partial shutdown of the economy if the situation created by COVID-19 continues to worsen.

Until this Monday, Biden, who is well acquainted with the White House and the mechanisms of government after his eight years as Obama’s vice president, had played down the lack of joint work.

But time passes and the urgencies accumulate. And although the pandemic is the main problem, it is not the only one.


“With every day that passes, the lack of access to classified operations puts the interests of the American people at risk in terms of national security,” Yohannes Abraham of Biden’s transition team warned last week .

Most Republican politicians are silent or support Trump questioning the election result for an alleged fraud of which there is no evidence.

But some like Sen. Chuck Grassley have already said publicly that Biden should receive classified intelligence reports from the Trump administration.

CIA logo
Only when the president-elect is recognized can the CIA share classified reports with him as well.

Every day the president receives a report with the latest information from the intelligence agencies that the outgoing president traditionally authorizes to share with the elect.

Then there is the classified information, which the transition team usually has access to.

For the CIA to share it, the law says Trump must recognize Biden as president.

That recognition is made through the General Services Administration (GSA), a low-profile government agency charged with the federal bureaucracy that must certify Biden as a winner.

This is usually a mere formality, but so far the GSA has not done so, thus denying Biden access not only to classified information, but also to financial resources.

The GSA is led by Emily W. Murphy , who was appointed by Trump.

Robert O’Brien , the internal security adviser in charge of coordinating all security matters with the White House, promised on Monday a gentle transition that is currently taking place.

“There have always been peaceful and successful transitions, even in the most troubled times,” he told a global security forum.

“If it is determined that Biden and (Kamala) Harris won, and obviously things look like this, we will have a very professional transition from the National Security Council, without a doubt,” he said in a reassuring tone.

As in 2000

George Bush and Bill Clinton.
The short transition between the Clinton and Bush administrations may have influenced the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The current friction between the incoming and outgoing governments is reminiscent of the year 2000, when George W. Bush’s narrow victory over Al Gore was defined almost 40 days after the elections.

And that delay and then an accelerated transition between the Bill Clinton and Bush administrations were factors that could have influenced the attacks of September 11, 2001.

“The late transition from President Clinton to George W. Bush caused a failure in the preparation of national security,” reads the report of the congressional commission that analyzed the circumstances of the attacks of September 11, 2001, which left nearly 3,000 dead on US soil.

The delay “prevented the new government from identifying, recruiting, approving and obtaining Senate confirmation for key people” in the security area, said the commission, warning that preventing future disruptions in the change of power was a matter of deep concern. national.

“The commission said that if there had been a longer transition and there had been cooperation, there could have been a better response or perhaps even prevented the attack,” Andy Card , Bush’s former chief of staff , recalled a few days ago on CNBC.

“This is very serious,” he said, asking Trump to facilitate the change of command.

Card was the man who gave Bush the first news of what was happening that September 11. “America is under attack,” he whispered to the president, as recorded in this image from that day.

“Our adversaries seek to take advantage of the United States during transitions. We can’t let that happen, “Card insisted in The Washington Post .

Real consequences

“The longer (the paralysis) lasts, the greater the danger that there could be real consequences, as the new security team may face situations for which they are not prepared,” says Gordon Corera , BBC Security correspondent.

“There is a risk that other countries seek to take advantage of this period of uncertainty, for example Iran, which may want revenge for the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in January,” he adds.

Democrat Roger Krishnamoorthi , who sits on the congressional security committee, increases the number of possible threats by speaking of “70 terrorist groups targeting the United States,” as well as citing “Iranians, Chinese, North Koreans, and even Russians.” .

“Everyone is looking for opportunities to exploit our weaknesses,” he said in dialogue with the public radio station NPR.

Personnel changes

The Trump administration announced the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is also concern about the decisions that Trump may make in the final weeks of his term.

The president replaced Defense Secretary Mark Esper last week and could do the same with CIA director Gina Haspel .

Nor is Chris Wray , director of the FBI, secure.

The Trump administration announced on Tuesday the withdrawal of 2,500 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, something that at this time some high-ranking security officials do not share because it involves risks.

This Tuesday Jens Stoltenberg , secretary general of NATO (Organization for the North Atlantic Treaty), warned that withdrawing troops “too soon” could cost “a high price.”

And neither did Secretary Esper agree. But in its replacement and in the future there may be something more.

“The national security community was always in the crosshairs of President Trump, as he accuses it of being part of the deep state and conspiring against it,” says Corera.

Mark Esper and Donald Trump
Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper a few days ago.

In recent months, the BBC journalist points out, the president has tried to declassify information that denies Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Trump believes that in some way he delegitimized his triumph and his presidency.

And he is also not satisfied with the fact that Hunter Biden , son of his rival, was not investigated about his business abroad.

Besides the possible layoffs, there are the new appointments.

According to Corera, “there is concern that the Trump team may be trying to get people into the national security system who may continue to have a role after January 20,” when the current president’s term ends.


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