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Pentagon Prepares for First Wartime Transition in 40 Years


The current presidential transition in Washington is the first during wartime since 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson handed the reins of power to President Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War. That is particularly significant at the Defense Department's headquarters, the Pentagon. VOA's Al Pessin reports on preparations being made to ensure that key officials of the new administration are ready to take control of the world's most powerful military the moment Barrack Obama takes office on January 20.

Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman took reporters on a tour of offices set up for the Obama Pentagon transition team.

"There are actually three kind of large areas like this," he said. "We've got computers set up, telephones set up, basic supplies, ready for folks to commence doing some work. You know, we're ready at any time."

One desk even has a copy of the Pentagon's specially prepared transition guide, and Whitman says officials are developing a list of the top few dozen defense issues the new administration will have to deal with early in its term.

"While this country has a long history of smooth succession of leadership, it becomes essential that we do it as efficiently and as effectively as we can because we are a nation at war," he said.

The newly renovated offices for up to two dozen people are on the Pentagon's prestigious outer ring, just down the hall from Defense Secretary Robert Gates' office, and not far from the suite of the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen. Whitman expects the Obama transition headquarters in Chicago to soon provide the names of the first group of officials who will work in these offices, and who will begin to absorb the mountain of information they will need to take over thousands of defense department programs and the control of U.S. forces worldwide.

"Everyone recognizes the unique challenges that lie ahead for not just this department, but in particular for this department, given the fact that we have forces in combat zones, in harm's way, deployed overseas as part of the global war on terror," said Whitman. "And I know that there will be Herculean efforts on the part of this department to ensure that things go as smoothly as possible, so that on January 20th this should be as seamless as possible."

The Obama team will have much to learn, and eventually the new president could send more than 200 political appointees to the Pentagon, many of them to serve in key policy and management jobs. Importantly, the new officials will have to know the details of how the U.S. military works, but they will also have to absorb a lot of secret information about key issues, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in order to prepare to make policy decisions.

Among the most controversial of those will be how quickly to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Mr. Obama has called for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops within 16 months of his inauguration. Senior military officers oppose firm timetables, and say while some drawdowns will come soon, they want future decisions based on the often-changing conditions on the ground. There are also several major reviews in progress of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

The top military officers appointed by President Bush will remain in place, at least for a while. Senior them is Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has at least one more year on his term in office. The admiral says he is looking forward to hearing President-elect Obama's ideas, giving his best military advice and then implementing the new president's decisions.

The top U.S. military officer with direct responsibility for Iraq, and now also for Afghanistan, will also remain in his post. He is the newly installed chief of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, who is widely credited with turning around the war in Iraq during the last year-and-a-half. In an interview before the election, Petraeus downplayed talk of potential tension with the president-elect.

"Whenever there's a transition of administrations, regardless of who it is that takes office, there's a dialogue that discusses the relative importance of various missions," said General Petraeus. "There's provision of input from military leaders, from the Pentagon, on the forces required to perform different missions, a prioritization process that is necessary because resources are not unlimited, and so forth. And so there will be that kind of dialogue and that's what, in fact, the senior leadership in the Pentagon will look forward to."

Some experts believe the new president is not likely to do anything that might risk reversing the recent progress in Iraq, even if it means letting some of his campaign promises slide a little bit.

One major question is who will be the Obama administration's secretary of defense. Several opinion columns have called for Secretary Gates to be retained, but at a news conference in April he indicated he is not interested.

"The circumstances under which I would do that are inconceivable to me," said Secretary Gates.

Gates says he wants to retire to the western United States with his wife, but there are hints he might stay for a period of time if asked. There is also much speculation about who might get the job if he leaves. That all should be settled soon, as the Obama transition team gets down to business and begins to figure out who to send to those freshly prepared offices in the Pentagon.

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