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25 Nov 20. Pentagon transition begins, with a COVID-19 twist. Less than a day after the General Services Administration opened the doors for the landing team from the Biden-Harris campaign to arrive at the Pentagon, members have already had two conversations with current defense officials, with more to come.
But while the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 lays out clear directives on how one administration helps usher in the next — it literally comes with a handbook on best practices — this transition, like so much else in 2020, may require some flexibility thanks to COVID-19.
The GSA’s move — which came after growing criticisms from Democrats who felt the agency was slow-rolling the start of the transition for political purposes — freed up funds, office space and, critically for the Pentagon transition, allowed the sharing of sensitive information with the incoming team.
However, the transition is kicking off just as the Pentagon upped its level of COVID preparedness. As a result, maximum occupancy has dropped to 40 percent, with extra temperature checks.
According to Washington Headquarters Services Director Thomas Muir, the agency transition director, that won’t stop the transition, but it may require the team to rely more on video teleconferencing than previous groups.
The incoming team “is willing and certainly able to abide by the COVID restrictions here in the Pentagon. They agreed with the protection measures we’re doing for our families, our employees, ourselves, our colleagues, our comrades here in the Pentagon.” Muir said at a press conference Tuesday, adding that “Some will work in the building, some will be virtual.”
Kash Patel, the newly installed chief of staff for newly installed Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, will be leading the transition for the current administration. But Muir will manage the day-to-day work, according to chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman.
“I spoke with the chief of staff today, and he is assured me that Tom here is the lead on this and that he is going to be working with Tom, and Tom is going to be the one working with the team today,” Hoffman said, adding that Patel’s role is mainly “to be the touch point for the secretary, to ensure the secretary has insight into what’s going on and to make sure the transition is successful.”
Patel also reached out to transition lead Kathleen Hicks in order to share his contact information in case she had any questions.
Muir said his team has been preparing for six months in case a transition was needed, and believes the current set up will allow the Biden-Harris team to work as safely as possible.
Included in that setup: office space at the Pentagon that allows for social distancing, and which comes equipped with both secure and unsecure VTC capabilities. With the GSA certification, the FBI and Department of Justice can begin giving security clearances to the transition team, allowing access to classified information needed to give an up-to-date situation report to the president-elect and his advisers.
Informing the transition is a group of “transition assistance coordinators,” largely general officers or senior executive service civilians, drawn from key offices around the military agencies, combatant commands, joint staff and OSD. That group, which meets weekly, will provide information as needed to the transition team and help set up interviews with key officials.
Muir noted he expects daily conversations with the Biden-Harris group, adding “They’re looking forward to participating in discussions in the Pentagon. I’m providing a small tour on Monday next week.” (Source: Defense News)
25 Nov 20. US lawmakers voice concern over Open Skies withdrawal. On Sunday, the US State Department confirmed that the US had formally withdrawn from the Open Skies surveillance treaty six months after giving notice of intent. The decision has provoked concern from lawmakers in the country. The Trump administration announced in May that it was seeking to withdraw from the treaty that allows signatories to conduct military surveillance flights over each other’s territory.
In a statement, the US State Department said: “On May 22, 2020, the United States exercised its right pursuant to paragraph 2 of Article XV of the Treaty on Open Skies by providing notice to the Treaty Depositaries and to all States Parties of its decision to withdraw from the Treaty, effective six months from the notification date.
“Six months having elapsed, the US withdrawal took effect on November 22, 2020, and the United States is no longer a State Party to the Treaty on Open Skies.”
At the time, the US cited Russian non-compliance as part of its reasoning, following Russia restricting flights over some regions of Georgia. Commenting on the formal withdrawal, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it made the US ‘more secure’.
Pompeo tweeted: “Today, pursuant to earlier notice provided, the United States withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies is now effective. America is more secure because of it, as Russia remains in non-compliance with its obligations.“
The Wall Street Journal reported that the US is drawing up plans to sell the Boeing OC-135B Open Skies observation aircraft it had used to conduct the surveillance overflights.
The post-Cold-War treaty came into effect in 2002 and was designed to increase understanding between its members.
The withdrawal from the treaty has drawn criticism from lawmakers from both the US Senate and Congress, with influential committee members admonishing the move.
In a joint statement, the Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Representatives Eliot Engel and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment William Keating said: “Yesterday, President Trump completed his reckless campaign to withdraw the United States from the Treaty on Open Skies.
“Once again, he has pulled our country out of a critical arms control agreement while ignoring repeated warnings from defence and security experts, Congress, and allies and partners about the dangers a withdrawal would pose for US and allied security.”
The Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Representative Adam Smith said that the decision to proceed with the withdrawal from the treaty would affect the country’s relationship with allies in Europe.
For its part, the UK – another member of the treaty – said it understood the US concerns around non-compliance by Russia.
A UK Government spokesperson told Air Force Technology: “The UK Government was informed of the US decision to withdraw from the Open Skies treaty and understands their concerns about Russian non-compliance.
“The UK remains committed to the treaty, but the US is our closest ally and we continue to work with them to ensure our shared security and prosperity.”
Smith added: “The importance of alliances and confidence-building measures to support strategic stability in Europe in the face of Russian aggression must be a priority for the next Administration.
“For four years the Trump Administration has worked to undermine these relationships and dismantle agreements that uphold transatlantic stability, and I am confident President-elect Biden will immediately work to rebuild US leadership and hold Russia accountable for their destabilising actions as soon as he is sworn into office.”
President Trump also drew criticism for not notifying Congress of the move. Under the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – which funds the US Department of Defense (DOD) – Engel and Keating said that Trump should have given lawmakers 120 days’ notice before ‘announcing his intent to leave the treaty’.
In their statement, Engel and Keating also called for the incoming Biden administration to look to re-join the treaty.
Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Bob Menendez said: “As I have stated previously, the administration’s decision to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty is reckless and leaves the United States and our allies less secure against Russia.
“For nearly twenty years, the Treaty, which the Senate approved unanimously, has provided the United States and our allies important insights into Russia’s military. “
Menendez added that the decision to press ahead with the withdrawal reflected the Trump administrations continued ‘pattern’ of withdrawal from arms control agreements. Since taking office, the Trump administration has also withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.
Withdrawal from the INF Treaty leaves the world with just one treaty – New START – governing the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, that of the US and Russia.
Despite withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty, Russian aircraft will still be able to conduct overflights of the members in Europe, most of which are home to US Military bases.
In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry wrote: “Now that it has left the Treaty on Open Skies, the United States expects its allies to prevent Russia from carrying out observation flights over US military sites in Europe, while also sharing with Washington their aerial footage of the Russian territory.” (Source: airforce-technology.com)
24 Nov 20. DOD Transition Outreach to Biden-Harris Team Begins. The Defense Department is working to ensure the transition to the administration of President-elect Joe Biden is a smooth one, Pentagon officials said today.
Last night, the General Services Administration signed paperwork that allowed government employees to speak with members of the Biden-Harris transition office.
Tom Muir, the director of Washington Headquarters Services, will lead the DOD transition effort.
Muir said in a Pentagon press conference that he is operating under the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, and that the department has been preparing for transition since June. “We have a DOD policy that guides our actions during transition activities,” he said.
The paperwork from the GSA administrator also made certain post-election resources available to the Biden-Harris transition team. “The head of the Biden-Harris transition team did reach out to me personally last night,” Muir said. “We had a conversation via email and we had our first meeting this morning.”
Members of the Biden-Harris agency review team will receive office space in the Pentagon and briefings from military and civilian leaders. “We’re looking forward to continuing the process with the Biden-Harris transition team in the near future, and throughout the transition period,” Muir said.
The DOD is a huge department and it changes. The transition team has provided the Biden-Harris team with interim transition books, with primers detailing the organizational structures, budget, missions and charters of the department.
This includes the military departments, the Joint Staff, the National Guard Bureau and the Office of the Secretary of Defense components. “It is a very detailed, elaborate and deliberate system [for transition],” Muir said.
Contact between the department and the Biden-Harris transition team will grow. “Those will be daily discussions moving forward likely, and will be responsive to the requirements, while ensuring that we implement the national defense strategy of the United States during this time of vulnerability for a nation,” Muir said. (Source: US DoD)
24 Nov 20. US formally withdraws from Open Skies treaty. The United States formally withdrew from the international Open Skies treaty on 22 November, fulfilling the Trump administration’s pledge made in May.
“On May 22, the United States exercised its right pursuant to paragraph 2 of Article XV of the Treaty on Open Skies by providing notice to the Treaty Depositaries and to all States Parties of its decision to withdraw from the Treaty, effective six months from the notification date,” the US State Department said. “Six months having elapsed, the US withdrawal took effect on November 22, and the United States is no longer a State Party to the Treaty on Open Skies.”
In declaring its intent in May to withdraw from the treaty, the US cited repeated Russian violations, refusing, for instance, to allow access to observation flights within a 10 km corridor along the country’s border with the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as restrictions placed on using an Open Skies refuelling airfield in the Russian-occupied region of Crimea.
For its part, Russia, which was scathing of the US decision, noted perceived US violations of the treaty, with the Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev, pointing to a maximum flight range over the territory of the Hawaiian Islands, restrictions on flights over the Aleutian archipelago, and the setting of unreasonable limits on the height of the flight of its observation aircraft. “The list goes on”, he said at the time. (Source: Jane’s)
23 Nov 20. Biden begins choosing national security team. President-elect Joe Biden is moving to fill out his national security team with a raft of appointments to top positions that signal his intent to repudiate the Trump administration’s “America First” doctrine.
The six picks announced on Monday, almost all of them alumni of the Obama administration, represent a fundamental shift away from President Donald Trump’s policies and personnel selections. They also mark a return to a more traditional approach to America’s relations with the rest of the world and reflect Biden’s campaign promises to have his Cabinet reflect the diversity of the American population.
In choosing foreign policy veterans, Biden is seeking to upend Trump’s war on the so-called deep state that saw an exodus of career officials from government. He will nominate his longtime adviser Antony Blinken to be secretary of state, lawyer Alejandro Mayorkas to be homeland security secretary, Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be ambassador to the United Nations, Jake Sullivan to be his national security adviser, Avril Haines to be Sullivan’s deputy, and former Secretary of State John Kerry to be his climate change envoy.
The choices also suggest Biden intends to make good on campaign promises to have his Cabinet reflect the diversity of the American population with Greenfield, a Black woman, at the helm of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and Mayorkas, a Cuban-American lawyer who will be the first Latino to lead Homeland Security.
They “are experienced, crisis-tested leaders who are ready to hit the ground running on day one,” the transition said in a statement. “These officials will start working immediately to rebuild our institutions, renew and reimagine American leadership to keep Americans safe at home and abroad, and address the defining challenges of our time — from infectious disease, to terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cyber threats, and climate change.”
In making the announcements, Biden moved forward with plans to fill out his government even as Trump refuses to concede defeat in the Nov. 3 election, has pursued baseless legal challenges in several key states and has worked to stymie the transition process.
The stakes of a smooth transition are especially high this year because Biden will take office amid the worst pandemic in more than a century, which will likely require a full government response to contain.
Perhaps the best known of the bunch is Kerry, who made climate change one of his top priorities while serving as Obama’s secretary of state.
“America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is,” Kerry said. “I’m proud to partner with the president-elect, our allies, and the young leaders of the climate movement to take on this crisis as the president’s climate envoy.”
Sullivan, who at 43 will be one of the youngest national security advisers in history, was a top aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before becoming then-Vice President Biden’s national security adviser. He said the president-elect had “taught me what it takes to safeguard our national security at the highest levels of our government.”
“Now, he has asked me to serve as his national security adviser,” Sullivan said. “In service, I will do everything in my power to keep our country safe.”
The posts to be held by Kerry, Sullivan and Haines do not require Senate confirmation.
Blinken, 58, served as deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser during the Obama administration and has close ties with Biden. If nominated and confirmed, he would be a leading force in the incoming administration’s bid to reframe the U.S. relationship with the rest of the world after four years in which President Donald Trump questioned longtime alliances.
Blinken recently participated in a national security briefing with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and has weighed in publicly on notable foreign policy issues in Egypt and Ethiopia.
Blinken would inherit a deeply demoralized and depleted career workforce at the State Department. Trump’s two secretaries of state, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, offered weak resistance to the administration’s attempts to gut the agency, which were thwarted only by congressional intervention.
Although the department escaped massive proposed cuts of more than 30% in its budget for three consecutive years, it has seen a significant number of departures from its senior and rising mid-level ranks, from which many diplomats have opted to retire or leave the foreign service given limited prospects for advancements under an administration that they believe does not value their expertise.
A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School and a longtime Democratic foreign policy presence, Blinken has aligned himself with numerous former senior national security officials who have called for a major reinvestment in American diplomacy and renewed emphasis on global engagement.
“Democracy is in retreat around the world, and unfortunately it’s also in retreat at home because of the president taking a two-by-four to its institutions, its values and its people every day,” Blinken told The Associated Press in September. “Our friends know that Joe Biden knows who they are. So do our adversaries. That difference would be felt on day one.”
Blinken served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration before becoming staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was chair of the panel. In the early years of the Obama administration, Blinken returned to the NSC and was then-Vice President Biden’s national security adviser before he moved to the State Department to serve as deputy to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Biden has pledged to build the most diverse government in modern history, and he and his team often speak about their desire for his administration to reflect America. He is being watched to see whether he will make history by nominating the first woman to lead the Pentagon, the Treasury Department or the Department of Veterans Affairs or the first African American at the top of the Defense Department, the Interior Department or the Treasury Department.
Ron Klain, Biden’s incoming chief of staff, said Sunday the Trump administration’s refusal to clear the way for Biden’s team to have access to key information about agencies and federal dollars for the transition is taking its toll on planning, including the Cabinet selection process. Trump’s General Services Administration has yet to acknowledge that Biden won the election — a determination that would remove those roadblocks.
“We’re not in a position to get background checks on Cabinet nominees. And so there are definite impacts. Those impacts escalate every day,” Klain told ABC’s “This Week.” (Source: Defense News Early Bird/Defense News)
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