‘Really quite shocking’: Inside the ugly transition at the Pentagon

Those involved in the transition, both on the Biden team and on the Pentagon side, gave POLITICO a more detailed picture of what was rejected. They said that urgent defense briefings never took place, were delayed until the last minute or controlled by arrogant thinkers on the part of the Trump administration.

“Defense has traditionally been a bipartisan business between and among professionals, and this is a terrible look for those looking to copy that pettiness in the future,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, an associate at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Efforts to block the passage of critical national security information are “useless, bad and a terrible precedent.”

This story is based on conversations with 10 Pentagon and Biden officials involved in the transition, most of whom spoke of sensitive conversations on condition of anonymity.

Tension between the Pentagon and the Biden Agency landing team emerged almost the moment the General Services Administration approved the transition in late November after an initial post-election delay. While the military side of the house – the joint staff and commanders of the geographic fighters – were more cooperative, the civilian side erected roadblocks at every turn.

“You really shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. It is just completely irresponsible and unjustifiable, ”said one interim official. “Doing politics with the country’s national security is simply unacceptable.”

Outgoing Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller has publicly stated he is committed to a smooth transfer of power, and Defense Department officials say the Pentagon worked hard to handle the Biden team’s information and interview requests in difficult circumstances due to the pandemic and a meet bipartisan environment.

Pentagon spokeswoman Sue Gough said it was “understandable” that there are limits to what sensitive and classified information the department can provide to the incoming team, including in connection with future military operations. She also defended the presence of civil agents as “observers” at meetings with the Biden team, saying the attorneys’ attendance ensures that the information is “properly handled”.

Transition “Employees are not government employees and are therefore limited to some extent on what they can get,” Gough said. “Membership in a transition team alone is not a license to access confidential, privileged, or classified government information.”

However, those with the transition said the outgoing team’s behavior was way beyond the norm and that the White House-appointed loyalists were the main reason behind the disability. Pentagon officials under President Donald Trump refused to provide information on current operations, particularly in the area of ​​special operations, because they are “pre-determined”. That means the Biden team has limited insight into key operational issues, including the counter-terrorism actions planned.

In one case, the Pentagon abruptly canceled the transition team’s meeting with General Scott Miller, commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, which was scheduled just before Christmas. At the time, the incumbent defense minister said both teams had agreed to postpone all non-Covid-related meetings until after the new year, but Biden officials publicly denied that claim.

The decline in Afghanistan, where American troops are expected to leave the country in the spring under an agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban, is one of the most pressing issues Biden’s national security team must grapple with during his young presidency.

The team was finally able to speak to the general in January. But with the Trump administration to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and on the way to zero by May, “having a several-week delay in access to General Miller was not good,” the first interim official said.

Another area where the transition felt it had no proper access was Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s efforts to develop and distribute Covid-19 vaccines. The Pentagon initially declined the transition’s request to meet with General Gustave Perna, Warp Speed’s chief operating officer.

Perna was present at a meeting between the Pentagon and the transition teams for health and human services in mid-December but did not answer any questions. Just last week, the DoD transition team met with Perna on a smaller scale.

Transitional officials said the delay in answering questions about Warp Speed ​​will hamper the Biden government’s plan to dramatically increase the country’s vaccination distribution efforts over the next three months.

Pushing back the characterization that DoD did not cooperate at Warp Speed, Gough noted that the department conducted 64 interviews or briefings with the Biden transition team where Covid-19 was on the agenda or a major discussion item , and 59 Covid- has completed. related requests for information.

Overall, Gough said the department had sent the Biden team 277 responses to requests for information as of Tuesday.

But across the department, even when meeting with civilian and military DoD officials, the transition teams were often very tense, as if they were being given explicit instructions about what to talk about and what not. These suspicions were confirmed when the first interim officer encountered a “very senior” military official a week after their meeting and the officer apologized for his clipped responses.

“We were alone and he said to me, ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you more, but I received very strict instructions,” said the interim officer.

In another interview with a commander of the combatant, the Biden team asked detailed questions on urgent national security issues and received “very vanilla answers”.

Part of this reluctance may be due to the fact that “watchdogs” from the Department of Defense General Counsel’s office were present at almost every transition meeting, and Pentagon civilian officials often cut off on “predetermined operational matters”.

At a recent meeting, Brig withdrew. General Anthony Tata, who served as acting head of Pentagon policy until last week, often glanced over at the General Counsel’s representative, as if to ask permission to discuss a particular subject.

In the meantime, every information request submitted by the Biden team had to be reviewed by the Attorney General’s office, and many have been stripped of any useful information. Many inquiries were never answered and those that came back were thoroughly “cleaned up”.

The Biden team had particularly poor insight into the special operations and low-intensity conflict portfolio. While Trump’s political representatives made the transition in that office, many of the career officials have been kept “at bay,” a defense official said, describing the effort as unprecedented.

“We didn’t get that out of hand,” said the person.

The first interim officer echoed those concerns, saying the team had met with “a chief of staff who appeared very young and quite new to his portfolio”. The person recalled asking detailed questions about changes the Trump administration had made to the approval process for a mission – under former President Barack Obama, most missions had to be approved by the White House – but couldn’t get clear answers .

The team is particularly concerned that it does not have enough insight into what is going on in Africa, whether it is covert special operations across the continent or Trump’s Withdrawal from Somalia.

The Biden team was also frustrated with the lack of cooperation on the upcoming budget request, a concern Biden himself cited in December, and that a second interim officer was called “ridiculous”. In particular, the Biden team went out of their way to learn details about the Trump administration’s efforts to divert resources from military construction projects to the border wall and fund the Covid-19 response.

Mike McCord, the head of transition for Pentagon budget issues, was finally able to meet with officials last week to discuss the budget request, but the delay until days before the inauguration caused heartburn.

The Pentagon has also rejected transition efforts to gain insight into a high-profile arms deal with the United Arab Emirates for the F-35, America’s most advanced fighter aircraft. This prevented the team from understanding key details about how sensitive information about the jet would be protected and the concerns raised by Israel, which also operates its own F-35s and initially objected to the deal.

Some Trump defense officials called the Biden team’s allegations of obstructionism “exaggerated,” referring to their frustration at the delay in confirming the election, the crew reduction due to Covid-19 restrictions, and an above-average number of requests for information and information Interviews from returned the transition team.

“If anything, I think the incoming people overwhelm the department (political and professional alike) with inquiries,” said a second defense official.

By Friday, the transition team had met with more than 400 Defense Department political representatives and over 180 career officials, a third defense official said, noting the department had not denied it [agency review] Team everyone they asked for. “

A fourth defense official, who is leaving with the Trump team and is involved in some transition planning, said he had “seen no effort to hide anything from the Biden team.”

But he said he believed some of the top job candidates in the final months of administration did not have the institution’s best interests in mind and were obsessed with political vendettas.

Trump, he said, “hired the wrong people. And he paid a price for it. We couldn’t do much. “

And the sharpness has gone both ways. At the last minute, the Biden team denied Miller office space and resources to allow him to move out of the role, a courtesy usually provided to the outgoing team. POLITICO confirmed the move, first reported by Bloomberg.

The transition chose not to extend Miller this particular “perk” due to his role as an actor and reduced capacity at the Pentagon due to the pandemic, another interim official said, noting retired General Lloyd Austin, who was appointed Secretary of Defense , did the same. For these reasons, he decided to do all of his transition planning from home.

One area the Biden team said the department had been cooperative with was inauguration-related security, largely because the Pentagon’s role in the effort was being led by the military.

Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist, whom Biden has appointed as acting Secretary of Defense until Austin is confirmed, was particularly helpful.

Joe Francescon, Miller’s assistant chief of staff, reached out to Austin’s new chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, directly on January 5th. Officials from Biden and Trump, including Austin, Magsamen, outgoing Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Norquist, took part in a table training exercise last week. Miller was supposed to attend but opted for a domestic tour instead.

Overall, the first interim official said they would give Trump’s Pentagon team a “C- or D +” rating for their collaboration.

“Ultimately, the level of information to which we had access was insufficient, I mean grossly inadequate, particularly in the context of a historically unprecedented set of challenges facing the nation,” the person said. “It’s pretty shocking, really.”

Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

Leave a Comment