WASHINGTON – What would happen if terrorists attacked the United States at the start of Barack Obama’s presidency?
The Bush administration doesn’t want to wait to find out. It’s planning to test the incoming government’s readiness next month in a series of tabletop exercises involving top Bush and Obama officials.
Concerned about the first handoff of presidential power since Sept. 11, 2001, the White House also is preparing briefing books and office manuals designed to bring the incoming Obama administration up to speed in a hurry.
“This is the first wartime transition in 40 years, and it’s probably the first transition in a couple of centuries in which our homeland itself has been under threat,” says White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten, who’s supervising the effort. The goal is to “make sure that those who are coming in are as well prepared as they can be to deal with an actual threat here in this country.”
Although Obama’s emerging team includes many former Clinton administration officials and members of Congress, most have not served in the executive branch since the Department of Homeland Security was created. That makes it critically important that they quickly understand the federal government’s terrorism-response capabilities.
White House officials have not said what specific scenarios will be played out in next month’s exercises. One overriding concern since 2001 has been the possibility that Washington comes under attack. In that case, plans would need to be in place for the replacement of key government officials.
“They would be smart to be thinking about these things,” says John Fortier, executive director of the Continuity of Government Commission, created by Congress in 2002 to help plan for terrorist attack aftermaths. “You face a lot of perverse scenarios.”
Norman Ornstein, a presidential and congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has participated in similar tabletop exercises, says the Bush administration’s preparation efforts are “fabulous.”
“No president coming in in the past has had a ready-made crisis management process in place,” Ornstein says.
The briefings and test-runs on domestic terrorist attacks are just part of a broad White House effort to make this the smoothest transition of power in history.
“This … isn’t about good manners,” Bolten says. “It’s about preparing the next administration to deal with the challenges that the country faces. It’s about our responsibility to the public more than it is about our responsibility to each other.”
Over the past month, federal agencies have hosted scores of meetings with members of Obama’s transition team and prepared reams of documents – manuals for key White House offices, briefing books for key federal agencies and issue briefs on pending policy matters ranging from the threat of pandemic flu to relations with North Korea.
“This is not intended as the administration’s attempt to dictate what the next administration does,” Bolten says. “It’s intended completely in the spirit of, ‘Here’s what we know, you take it from here.’ ”
That passing of the torch began at the top the week after Election Day, when President Bush hosted Obama in the Oval Office.
Neither the 43rd nor the incoming 44th president has revealed much about that private talk or any phone conversations they have had since then.
“I was impressed by the questions he asked,” Bush said last week. “And I told him I wouldn’t reveal them, so that if he ever asked for my advice again, he would feel comfortable doing it.”
Bolten says that Bush and Obama “have already established a good relationship of candor.”
Similar relationships are forming between outgoing and incoming officials. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for instance, has met and dined with Obama’s choice for the job, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Perhaps the most robust transition was organized by Bolten for his successor, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill. Earlier this month, Bolten invited the 16 living former White House chiefs of staff to breakfast at the White House “to meet the newest member of the club and provide some counsel.” Thirteen showed up, including two who date to the Ford administration – Vice President Cheney and his mentor, former secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
“I’m glad that Rahm had the benefit of so much wisdom around the table,” Bolten says. “Everybody around that table was pulling for the next administration and specifically wishing Rahm well, and explicitly making themselves available to him.”