The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Wednesday that the United States is vulnerable to attack or other incidents during the presidential transition period and that the military is ready to respond.
“When you go back and look at the number of incidents that have occurred three or four months before an inauguration to about 12 months out, back to the ‘50s, it’s pretty staggering the number of major incidents which have occurred in this time frame,” Adm. Michael Mullen said, noting that the danger is compounded by current world conditions.
The Sept. 11 attacks, for example, occurred eight months after President Bush took office, at a time when many key appointments had not been made.
Recent preparations for the transition in the Pentagon were aimed at preventing any attacks, and if an attack or incident does take place, the military is ready to respond, Adm. Mullen told Sara A. Carter, national security reporter for The Washington Times.
Shifts from old to new administrations are “always a challenging time in our country, always have been,” Adm. Mullen said.
“Transitions are always difficult,” he said. “We’ve put a lot of effort into it, and we’re ready.”
The chairman said he is concerned about the transition because of the global threats and opportunities facing the United States at the present time, namely in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I consider this a time of vulnerability, and I’ve worked this for months to have a transition team prepare for a new administration, mindful that this new administration, they don’t take charge until the 20th of January,” Adm. Mullen said.
The four-star admiral, who is the designated chief military adviser, stated that the military serves “one commander in chief always” while at the same time he will be going to “great lengths” to respond to the Obama transition team.
The team is expected to show up “very rapidly in this building,” and Adm. Mullen said he and his staff are ready to help. Adm. Mullen is halfway through his two-year term as chairman.
One of the first decisions President-elect Barack Obama must make is whether to keep Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who plans to leave office unless asked to stay.
“As far as I know, he is still planning on returning to his home in Washington state at the end of this administration,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told Inside the Ring Wednesday.
“But as he has said many times before, he learned long ago never to say ‘never’ and does not rule out the prospect of serving the nation longer if needed.”
Mr. Gates has focused most of his time at the Pentagon on the Iraq war since taking over for Donald H. Rumsfeld in December 2006.
Mr. Obama stated on his campaign’s Web site that “immediately upon taking office,” he will order the defense secretary and military commanders to end the Iraq war and withdraw U.S. troops “responsibly.”
He said Oct. 30 that he views it as important to have Republicans in senior leadership posts in his administration, but he did not answer a direct question on whether he would keep Mr. Gates.
Among those considered for the key national security post of defense secretary are former Clinton administration Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, an Obama adviser, and Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican and critic of the Bush administration’s war-on-terror policies.
CIA Director Michael V. Hayden also may resign or be replaced.
Asked whether Mr. Hayden will leave or stay, CIA spokesman George Little pointed to a statement Mr. Hayden sent to CIA employees Wednesday that said “those privileged to lead this organization understand that they serve at the pleasure of the president.”
Obama spokeswoman Wendy Morigi declined to comment on planned appointments or requests for officials to stay in place.
Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell also suggested that he may step down before the new administration. In a message to employees that was obtained by The Washington Times, Mr. McConnell said intelligence agencies have been working for months to prepare for the transition, which is about to enter “a critical stage” after the election and before the inauguration.
“A new national security team will soon emerge,” Mr. McConnell said. “The current administration is leaning forward to ensure that the incoming team has security clearances and access to sensitive intelligence as soon as possible.”
Intelligence agencies will both be working with the current administration and helping the incoming team, he said.
“We will be responsive to both and will work out priorities should conflicts arise.”
A spokesman for Mr. McConnell said the director said earlier that he intends to leave at the end of the current administration unless he is asked to stay on for a period during the transition.
Obama and missile defense
Defense specialists say one likely policy change at the Pentagon under the incoming Obama administration will be funding cuts and program modifications for U.S. strategic missile defenses.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama stated that he opposes “unworkable” missile defenses but that he thinks missile defenses are needed to counter Iranian and North Korean missiles.
A defense official involved in missile defense, however, said there is no reason to believe major changes will be made to the current missile-defense program.
“The Democrat-led Congress appropriated $9 billion for missile defense for 2009, only about $320 million less than the president’s budget request,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities.
“Both North Korea and Iran are continuing their development of missiles of all ranges, including missiles capable of striking the U.S., and there is no indication the threat will abate anytime soon, considering how much money both countries are spending on missile development.”
Missile defenses were integrated into the Bush administration’s new strategic triad of capabilities, which include nuclear and precision conventional strike forces, passive and active defenses, and the buildup of defense infrastructure. The old triad was a combination of land-based, sea-based and bomber-carrying nuclear forces.
John Holum, former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency director and an Obama campaign adviser, told the Arms Control Association in June that Mr. Obama would limit strategic missile defenses to current deployments in California and Alaska.
“But at the same time, he thinks it´s very important to proceed on the basis of workable defenses, making sure that systems are capable before we put so many resources into these systems,” Mr. Holum said.
Missile defense also needs to be based on threats and should focus on short-range missile defenses and “local defenses” against missiles, Mr. Holum said.
Mr. Obama’s priorities for missile defense include so-called theater or regional defenses, “and further down the list, as the technology is proven, more effective defenses; national or longer-range defenses,” Mr. Holum said.
Mr. Obama thinks a missile attack is less likely than a nuclear blast carried out from a suitcase, boxcar or shipping container smuggled into the country, “where missile defenses don’t have any impact,” Mr. Holum said.
During the Clinton administration, Mr. Holum opposed both short-range and long-range missile defenses during interagency discussions, favoring existing arms agreements over hardware, according to internal documents obtained at the time.
Mr. Holum led Clinton administration efforts to extend the now-defunct 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in talks with the Russians to cover short-range defenses, a move opposed by many in the Pentagon as restricting needed defenses against short-range missile attack.
Riki M. Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said he thinks missile defense will grow internationally under Mr. Obama and become part of “an alliance-building movement.”
However, missile defenses are likely to be approached differently than under Mr. Bush, he said.
“I believe that there will be no growth in the long-range ballistic missile capability that includes both here in Alaska and California as well as Poland and little growth if any on future missile-defense systems,” Mr. Ellison said in an e-mail.
• Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.