The threats our nation faces today are complex and interrelated — cyberattacks that seek to undermine our elections; violent extremism and white nationalism; the proliferation of nuclear weapons and loose nuclear material; extreme weather disasters made worse by climate change; and a public health emergency that has killed over 250,000 Americans.
A chaotic transition from the Trump administration to a Biden administration will make responding to these threats and challenges harder. What’s needed now is cross-partisan cooperation to ensure a smooth and orderly transfer of power. Our national security depends on it.
Twenty years ago, the presidential transition was truncated, to disastrous results. We know firsthand the national security risks posed by a botched transition: We’re two former members of the 9/11 Commission — one of us the Republican former governor of New Jersey who led the commission, and the other a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who served on it.
Three and a half years after the 2000 election came to an end, the 9/11 Commission released its official report on the events leading up to the worst terrorist attack in American history. “The dispute over the election and the 36-day delay [between Election Day and the day in mid-December when the Republican, George W. Bush, was ultimately declared the winner] cut in half the normal transition period,” the report detailed, “hamper[ing] the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees,” which left our country more vulnerable to attack.
Together, along with eight others in a bipartisan group of commissioners, we worked to understand the circumstances that led to the attacks, and to provide recommendations to guard against future ones. We understood then what should be evident now: Matters of national security must transcend domestic political division. Today, as our country faces vast foreign and domestic risks, President-elect Joe Biden’s transition must be treated not as an exercise in politics but as the security imperative it is.
More than two weeks have passed since the 2020 presidential race was called in Mr. Biden’s favor, and the president-elect has still not received official intelligence briefings. Even during the mismanaged transition in 2000, Mr. Bush was still given the full daily intelligence briefing. What’s more, Mr. Biden’s transition team has been denied access to federal agencies, transition funds, office space and classified information. Perhaps most alarmingly, the president-elect has not yet been able to begin government background checks on key national security appointees, which could stall appointments, putting American national security at risk.
Eight years after winning his contested election, and seven years after 9/11, Mr. Bush offered the gold standard of transitions to then President-elect Barack Obama, heeding recommendations from our report and allowing Mr. Obama’s national security picks to begin obtaining security clearances right after Election Day. This readied the Senate to consider appointments, and it provided the president-elect with a “classified, compartmented list that catalogues specific, operational threats to national security; major military or covert operations; and pending decisions on the possible use of force.”
Today, many experts — Democrat and Republican — are sounding the alarm about the current state of transition. On Nov. 12, a group of over 150 former national security officials issued a letter warning that “delaying the transition further poses a serious risk to our national security.”
An orderly presidential transition is needed to keep America secure. We must learn from past mistakes. We implore the Trump administration to remember this imperative now. All Americans should be united in protecting our citizens from the clear and present dangers in the world today.
Thomas Kean, a Republican, is the former governor of New Jersey and chairman of the 9/11 Commission. Tim Roemer, a Democrat, is a former congressman from Indiana, U.S. ambassador to India and member of the 9/11 Commission.
By Thomas H. Kean and Tim Roemer
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