Washington Transfers Power While Fighting 2 Wars

The transfer of power from President Bush to the Obama administration will come during a time of two wars and watches for terrorist threats. The high stakes seem to have convinced the Bush and Obama teams to cooperate closely and in some unprecedented ways.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The presidential transition now under way is a little different from some in history. When Andrew Jackson took office in 1829, there was so much bad blood that he never even met with his predecessor, who skipped the inauguration. In 2008, the incoming and outgoing administrations are cooperating in some unprecedented ways.

That is especially true in the national security services that are fighting two wars and guarding against the possibility of terrorist attacks. NPR's intelligence correspondent Tom Gjelten is covering the national security transition. Tom, good morning.

TOM GJELTEN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How are the two sides managing this?

GJELTEN: The one word that you hear over and over from both sides is continuity, continuity in policies and the procedures to follow, even continuity in personnel. The message both sides are sending out is basically, as far as national security issues are concerned, there won't be any transition, there won't be any abrupt changes. It'll be a seamless transfer of power. Both the Obama and the Bush teams, Steve, are determined to make this point that the United States projects a united front.

INSKEEP: Well, given that President-elect Obama wants to change a number of President Bush's policies, is there some threat that they're facing that we don't know about that drives them together?

GJELTEN: The threat that they perceive is really from the historical pattern of al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks launching attacks around times of political transitions. They may see it as a time of vulnerability. We saw it in this country after Bill Clinton took office in '93, but also in Spain and Great Britain. There were both terrorist attacks around the time of government changes. So this new effort at collaboration seems mainly to be driven by these historical concerns. The message is, don't think we're vulnerable right now, we're not.

INSKEEP: Oh yeah, you mentioned 1993. That's when there was the first attack on the World Trade Center.

GJELTEN: On the World Trade Center, that's right.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Now, so how's the Bush administration keeping up its side here?

GJELTEN: They're preparing very detailed memoranda for the Obama folks on a wide range of issues, contingency plans about crises the Obama administration could face around the world: terrorist attack scenarios, new conflicts in Pakistan, a computer cyber attack, a collapse of the regime in North Korea.

These memos lay out what could happen in those situations and what plans are in place now for dealing with them. Also, detailed planning about the structure and procedures in place to deal with crises. How do you quickly get different government agencies working together, for example? Who do you call? In what order? What do you do if the government itself is disrupted by a terrorist attack? Very detailed planning.

I spoke yesterday with Ken Weinstein who's President Bush's adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism work at the National Security Council. He says that he's spending about a third of his time on this transition stuff. And you know, Steve, interestingly, in January, about a week or so before the inauguration, there'll actually be a big exercise here in Washington where the Bush and Obama people together walk through a simulated crisis and how they'd handle it.

INSKEEP: Although we do have the issue of exactly who on the Obama team is going to be receiving all these memoranda and acting on them.

GJELTEN: Well, that's right, although we do know, of course, that the secretary of defense, Robert Gates, is going to be staying on. Marine General James Jones, former NATO commander, lots of experience at crisis management, is going to be - is Obama's choice to be national security advisor. And I understand that Jones, General Jones is already on the job in the sense that he has taken charge of the national security transition on the Obama side. So this is how the Obama people are indicating that they're ready for this.

INSKEEP: So it's mainly the intelligence jobs that aren't yet filled on the Obama side.

GJELTEN: Right, Steve. No indication yet of who might be named to run the CIA, for example. But with this concern about continuity, the longer we go without somebody emerging there, the more likely it is that the current CIA director, Michael Hayden, will be asked to stay on, at least temporarily.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: Thank you, Steve.

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