Video: Obama to place an emphasis on ‘diplomacy’

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updated 12/17/2008 5:35:15 AM ET 2008-12-17T10:35:15

The White House has prepared more than a dozen contingency plans to help guide President-elect Barack Obama if an international crisis erupts in the opening days of his administration, part of an elaborate operation devised to smooth the first transition of power since Sept. 11, 2001.

The memorandums envision a variety of volatile possibilities, like a North Korean nuclear explosion, a cyberattack on American computer systems, a terrorist strike on United States facilities overseas or a fresh outbreak of instability in the Middle East, according to people briefed on them. Each then outlines options for Mr. Obama to consider.

The contingency planning goes beyond what other administrations have done, with President Bush and Mr. Obama vowing to work in tandem to ensure a more efficient transition in a time of war and terrorist threat. The commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, noting problems during the handover from President Bill Clinton to Mr. Bush, called for a better process “since a catastrophic attack could occur with little or no notice,” as its report put it.

“This is very unusual,” said Roger Cressey, a former Clinton White House counterterrorism official who was held over under Mr. Bush. “We certainly did not do that. When the transition happened from Clinton to Bush, remember it was a totally different world. You had some documents given that gave them a flavor of where things were at. But now you’ve got two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a hot war against Al Qaeda.”

In addition to the White House contingency memorandums, the Department of Homeland Security said it had given crisis training to nearly 100 career officials who may fill in while Mr. Obama’s appointees await Senate confirmation. Starting before the election, those career workers have conducted exercises alongside departing political appointees to test their responses.

The administration has invited members of the Obama agency review teams to observe some of those so-called tabletop exercises between now and the inauguration, on Jan. 20. The Bush team has also invited Obama transition officials to attend a “national level exercise” set for Jan. 12 and 13 that may play out what would happen if the top leadership of the nation were wiped out in a single stroke, officials said.

At the same time, senior counterterrorism officials plan to hold personal briefings for their counterparts on the biggest threats they see. And the White House has drafted as many as three dozen other long-term policy memorandums outlining various pressing issues that will confront the new team and how Mr. Bush’s aides see the status of each of these issues as his presidency comes to a close.

Video: Obama assesses national security The White House said the flurry of briefings and memorandums was meant to be helpful to the incoming administration, not an attempt to dictate to it, and members of the Obama team said they were taking it in that light.

“It’s a good-faith effort to provide potential information on some hot spots and some ideas about what they can do,” said Gordon D. Johndroe, a White House spokesman. “We just want to provide them, especially in the first few weeks, the basis for which they can have some information to make their decisions.”

The contingency plans, he said, provide the new president a variety of possible responses to certain situations rather than a specific course of action. “It’s a menu of contingencies and potential options,” he said. “It’s not exhaustive, and it’s not exclusive, and it’s not prescriptive, as if to say, ‘These are the only things you can do.’ ”

Mr. Bush said Tuesday that a top priority in his final days in office is to help Mr. Obama get ready to govern. “We care about him,” he said in an interview with CNN. “We want him to be successful, and we want the transition to work.”

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A spokeswoman for Mr. Obama’s office said she had no comment. But other Democrats working with the transition said they appreciated the Bush team’s efforts. “This doesn’t absolve the Bush administration of some of their judgments they’ve made over the years, but this is the right thing to do,” said a Democrat close to the transition who did not want to be named to avoid alienating the team. “This is when enlightened self-interest works.”

Mr. Cressey, who has been a critic of Mr. Bush’s national security policy, said: “I give them a lot of points for doing this. There could be zero down time for the new team coming in.”

The attention to national security in this postelection interim period stems in part from the recognition that terrorists have struck during moments of flux in national leadership before. Al Qaeda’s first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 came weeks after Mr. Clinton was sworn in. A series of bombings on a Madrid commuter train system in 2004 came three days before national elections. And an attack on a Glasgow airport in 2007 came days after Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office in Britain.

Here in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security declared the fall election and transition a period of heightened alert because of the concern. Under the authority granted by intelligence legislation Mr. Bush signed in 2004, the government has processed security clearances for Obama transition officials earlier than ever before and Mr. Obama has named his top nominees faster than any other modern president-elect.

Beyond terrorism, Mr. Obama could face an early unexpected international test on any number of fronts, as his running mate, Joseph R. Biden Jr., predicted on the campaign trail. During the transition between the administrations of the first President Bush and Mr. Clinton, a humanitarian crisis in Somalia prompted Mr. Bush to send United States troops to intervene.

While Mr. Obama’s national security résumé is relatively thin, many members of his national security team come with deep experience. He is keeping Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and has tapped Gen. James L. Jones, a retired NATO supreme commander, as national security adviser.

Yet returning Clinton veterans have not been in government since Sept. 11. There was no Department of Homeland Security then, no director of national intelligence. The world has changed, and so have the structures to cope with it.

And there are things that cannot be put in a briefing or memorandum. James Jay Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation, said much of the apparatus of government would know what to do in the event of a crisis. The real test for Mr. Obama will be projecting leadership.

“For a president thinking about crisis management,” Mr. Carafano said, “the most important thing is not decision making, it’s public relations.”

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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