The Impact of the 9/11 Commission on Current Presidential Transition Planning

September 11, 2020

By Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton

Presidential transitions are a time of great vulnerability for our nation, with a significant turnover in national security personnel occurring when the nation may be facing a foreign policy crisis or an adversary willing to cause significant trouble. Many of the laws and norms that presidential transitions follow today were put in place based on lessons learned in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

The independent, bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which we headed, examined the transition of power in 2001 from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. We found, among other things, that the Bush administration, like others before it, did not have its full national security team on the job until at least six months after it took office.

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. In exploring this issue, our report made a series of recommendations to protect the nation from national security threats during a presidential transition.

Our proposals were adopted by Congress largely through the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The post 9/11 provisions have been integrated into the process for all transitions since and include:

  • The designation of a single federal agency responsible for all security clearances. This task was originally given to the National Background Investigations Bureau at the Office of Personnel Management, and in April 2019 was moved to the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency.
  • A requirement that the outgoing administration provide the incoming administration with a “detailed classified, compartmented summary” of national security threats, major military and covert operations, and pending decisions on possible uses of military force.
  • A recommendation that the president-elect submit the names of candidates for high-level national security positions (through the level of undersecretaries of Cabinet departments) to the FBI as soon as possible after the general election, and that the responsible agencies conduct the background investigations necessary for the appropriate security clearances. 
  • A nonbinding sense of the Senate resolution calling on the president-elect to submit national security nominations to the Senate prior to the inauguration, and that all of those received prior to that date will receive a vote by the full Senate within 30 days of submission.
  • The ability of each major party candidate to submit requests for security clearances for prospective transition team members who may need access to classified information to carry out their responsibilities. The law requires that necessary background investigations be completed by the day after the conclusion of the general election. 

To be truly effective and help protect our nation from national security threats during and soon after a presidential transition, our outgoing and incoming leaders must be cooperative, take these requirements and best practices seriously, and act in the best interests of the nation.

Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, served as chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.