Martin Schram: A post-9/11 transition

Today, what we really want is to be looking hopefully ahead in this most troubling time in America’s modern history. But to do that, we must first hit rewind.

We need to scroll back and learn an apparently lost lesson from a frightening crisis during a recent presidential transition — a potential Inauguration Day crisis that was kept so quiet that most Americans probably still don’t know about it.

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The reason we need to rewind is that we apparently need to remind all those who still have access to the Oval Office that transitions are special times where America’s enemies may consider us fractured and vulnerable. Which means it is the one time where we must show the world we are, indeed, one nation. And that isn’t what we’ve been seeing this past week.

Our just-defeated President Donald Trump, in an act of reckless petulance, has just jeopardized our national security by showing the world that he is blocking the man who apparently defeated him, our likely president-elect Joe Biden, from being able to access security documents he needs to properly and promptly begin his presidential transition. Also Trump has been rushing around, ordering his lawyers to file baseless lawsuits claiming state elections were rigged against him — and firing top defense and homeland security officials in these final days, seemingly just to settle old scores of perceived insufficient loyalty.

And Trump’s transition actions may well have endangered our national security by tempting terrorists and enemy spooks who no doubt prey to catch us when we are most vulnerable.

Rewind and remind — or discover for the first time: Shortly before the 2009 Inauguration, an unmentioned terror threat suddenly dominated the full attention of the outgoing and incoming top tiers of President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama. Intelligence sources had picked up word that some extremists from Somalia were reported to have crossed the Canada border and entered the United States. The extremists were reportedly planning to detonate explosives somewhere near the National Mall during the inauguration.

From the outset, Bush had made sure he would be facilitating a flawless transition with the incoming Obama team. After all, he knew how it felt to be publicly blindsided. Bush’s own transition had been disastrously delayed after Election Day 2000, while he and Democrat Al Gore wallowed through the Florida recount that ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. As the 9/11 Commission Report concluded:

“The dispute over the election and the 36-day delay cut in half the normal transition period. Given that a presidential election in the United States brings wholesale change in personnel, this loss of time hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees.”

Top Bush and Obama national security officials had met in the Situation Room to review all that was known. In a remarkable account, The New York Times’ Peter Baker reported in 2010 that it was Obama’s soon-to-be secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who focused upon a key decision that needed to be made. If Obama is delivering his inaugural address and a bomb goes off anywhere on the National Mall, she asked: “Is the Secret Service going to whisk him off the podium so the American people see their incoming president disappear in the middle of the inaugural address? I don’t think so.”

Obama national security adviser John Brennan reportedly noted that it could be a situation where one Somali faction was spreading a false report about what another faction wanted to do. And in the end, after 72 tense hours, Bush’s intelligence team, working with Obama’s, got the answer that relieved everyone. Brennan was right. It turned out to be a false alarm.

Last Sept. 11, the 9/11 Commission’s co-chairs, former New Jersey former Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, jointly declared: “Since a catastrophic attack can occur with little or no notice as we experienced on 9/11, we concluded that the government must seek to minimize disruption of national security policymaking during the change of administrations.”

Today, with the COVID-19 pandemic spiking just about everywhere, Americans understand that we all have a lot to fear that has nothing to do with such trivialities as politics. What we cannot abide is the harm forced upon us by a president who has so lost touch with reality that he puts us at risk by playing politics with presidential transitioning — just because he can.

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The United States constitutional democracy has been America’s gift to the world. Then again, our national continuity has always been our greatest gift to ourselves.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Email him at martin.schram@gmail.com.