WASHINGTON – The U.S. military, bracing for the first wartime presidential transition in 40 years, is preparing for potential crises during the vulnerable handover period, including possible attacks by al-Qaida and destabilizing developments in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to senior military officials.
“I think the enemy could well take advantage” of the transfer of power in Washington, said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, who launched preparations for the transition months ago, and who will brief the president-elect, the defense secretary nominee and other incoming officials on crisis management and how to run the military.
Officials are working “to make sure we are postured the right way around the world militarily, that our intelligence is focused on this issue, and in day-to-day operations the military is making sure it does not happen,” Mullen said in an interview. “If it does happen, we need to be in a position to respond before and after the inauguration.”
Mullen, who will serve at least another year in his two-year appointment as the nation’s top military officer, expects to provide critical continuity between the two administrations at a dangerous juncture, the senior officials said.
He “will be in effect the bridge between the two,” said a senior military official familiar with Mullen’s transition team, made up of 14 senior officers from across the services.
The military’s primary focus during the transition is twofold: to heighten preparations for a crisis requiring military force, and to anticipate and advise the incoming administration on likely new directions in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said. High-level briefings on the risks and benefits of new strategies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as longer-term issues such as military modernization, are already being prepared for national security officials of the incoming administration, they said.
Historically, transition periods are times “of significant vulnerability. … The number of major incidents is alarming,” Mullen said. In presentations he uses a chart that highlights pre- and post-inauguration crises from the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A second, classified chart shows the biggest threats today. “I run out the worst-case scenarios,” Mullen said.
In recent days, commentaries on Web sites linked to al-Qaida have suggested that a terrorist strike might swing the U.S. presidential election in favor of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., leading to an expansion of U.S. military commitments in the Islamic world and further “exhausting” the United States.
Senior military officials and national security experts say major threats before and after the elections include an al-Qaida strike on the United States that would originate from Pakistan’s tribal areas, as well as a terrorist attack involving nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
“With the election, the economic issues and what is going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan, all this converging at once, it makes a pretty enticing target for al-Qaida to consider disrupting U.S. national security interests in the short term,” said John Rollins, a terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service.
Recent examples of terrorist activity during political transitions in the United States and elsewhere include the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, just after President Bill Clinton’s inauguration; the Sept. 11 attacks, within the first eight months of the Bush administration; as well as the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the discovery of the London car-bomb plot in 2007, both of which fell within days of major political events.
The goals of such an attack could include swaying the election, testing a new administration and demonstrating a continued ability to attack U.S. interests at will, Rollins said.
The military is also watching closely for destabilizing events in Iraq and Afghanistan, while monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities, Russia’s military presence in Georgia and other areas of concern, a senior military official said.