When the next president takes office in January, he or she will likely receive an intelligence brief warning that Islamic terrorists will attempt to exploit the transition in power by planning an attack on America, intelligence experts say.
After all, that is what happened to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush at a time when their national security teams and their counterterrorism plans were in flux.
Islamic terrorists bombed the World Trade Center in February 1993, in Mr. Clinton’s second month as president. Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks came in the Bush presidency’s first year. The strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened as the White House national security director was formulating a comprehensive plan for combating Osama bin Laden’s terror network, which had declared war on the United States.
The pattern is clear to some national security experts. Terrorists pay particular attention to a government in transition as the most opportune window to launch an attack.
“If I were asked by the newly elected president, I would strongly encourage him to be extremely vigilant during the transition period and within the first six months of his administration against an attack by al Qaeda on American interests at home or abroad,” said Bart Bechtel, a retired CIA operations officer and assistant chief academic officer at Henley-Putnam University.
Both Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot, have had extensive exposure to military security issues.
Both have attacked first-term Sen. Barack Obama’s ability to handle national security.
Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, has focused on Mr. Obama’s stated willingness to meet with any world leader, including Iran’s, without preconditions. Mrs. Clinton, New York Democrat, ran TV ads implying Mr. Obama is not qualified to manage an international crisis.
“I could see al Qaeda waiting to determine who was going to be the president and depending on which it is, taking an initial measure,” Mr. Bechtel said. “For instance, Obama may be viewed as someone who will accomplish what al Qaeda would like him to do, which is get out of the Middle East, and give him an opportunity to move in that direction. Failing that, they may decide to test him with a substantial attack on America or some American interest and see how he reacts.”
A U.S. intelligence official declined to comment on how the next president will be briefed.
Mr. Obama, Illinois Democrat, has vowed to remove all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months. He regularly has referred to the war against terror as centered in Afghanistan, while the Bush administration takes a broader view and sees Iraq as an opportunity to inflict a battlefield loss on al Qaeda. The White House has trumpeted the fact that the county has suffered no homeland terror strikes since Sept. 11, 2001.
Retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff and an Obama campaign co-chairman, told The Washington Times that Mr. Obama’s rivals are underestimating his ability to meet a challenge. Gen. McPeak likened him to Abraham Lincoln.
“I think people are only now beginning to realize that Barack is not your run-of-the-mill, ordinary Illinois politician,” he said. “He’s more like another Illinois politician who everybody underestimated.”
Gen. McPeak added, “I feel bad about giving Barack advice because every time I do, I know that he’s thought about it already. So I would draw him aside and say, ‘The minute you’re inaugurated, you will be tested.’ He’ll say, ‘Oh, you mean like Kennedy was with the Bay of Pigs?’ He’ll show me some way that he’s thought about that some time ago. The guy is absolutely scary smart. The real mistake al Qaeda can make is the one everybody else makes of underestimating the man.”
“They are in a wait-and-see situation right now,” he said. “They run the risk, if they attack before the election, of really influencing the way the election goes, to their detriment. If there’s an attack, I really believe McCain is going to run away with the election, and I don’t think they want that. I think they really would like Obama as their first choice and Clinton as their second.”
Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism specialist at the Congressional Research Service, said “Al Qaeda has a pattern of testing new American leaders.”
“Even now, al Qaeda is probably trying to plan something for after the U.S. inauguration,” he said. “I think to a certain extent, al Qaeda tested President Clinton’s administration several times. The response was ineffective. I think al Qaeda concluded it could attempt something as ambitious as 9/11, but concluded the time was better after a new president, who would not have time to review his strategy on al Qaeda. The time settled on was the summer or early fall, after a new president was inaugurated. They chose September because they wanted all the officials to be back at their desks from summer vacations.”
A Congressional Research Service report last month noted that January will mark the first change in administrations since the 2001 al Qaeda attacks.
“Whether an incident of national security significance occurs just before or soon after the presidential transition, the actions or inactions of the outgoing administration may have a long-lasting effect on the new president’s ability to effectively safeguard U.S. interests and may affect the legacy of the outgoing president,” the report states.
The report urges the Bush administration to deliver extensive threat briefings to the president-elect’s national security team.
Congress foresaw such a need when it wrote the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The law allows for presidential candidates to obtain pre-election security clearances for its chosen transition officials so they can immediately be briefed on security threats by the outgoing administration.
On al Qaeda’s ability to attack America again, Mr. Bechtel said, “I think they are still somewhat fractured. If you want to look at it as a piece of window glass, it’s broken, but there are lots of sharp pieces out there. I think within the tribal areas of Pakistan, they feel pretty darn comfortable.”
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