This time, they are members of “transition teams,” but several say they feel like more like political archaeologists. “The buildings look the same,” one said over coffee, “but everything inside is unrecognizable.” And as they dig, they have tripped across a few surprises.The team expressed amazement at the high tech Situation Room:
None of these newly arrived archaeologists would allow their names to be used when discussing their findings; to preserve cooperation with the Bush White House in a handover-of-power that still has 49 days to go, President-elect Barack Obama’s top aides have imposed a gag rule. But few can contain their amazement, chiefly at the sheer increase in the size of the defense and national-security apparatus.
“For a bunch of small-government Republicans,” one former denizen of the White House who has now stepped back inside for the first time in eight years, “these guys built a hell of an empire.”
Eight years ago, there were two deputy national security advisers; today there are a half-dozen, each with staff. In the downstairs suites of the West Wing and across the street in the Old Executive Office Building, the returnees tripped into the Homeland Security Council, created to keep order in the new, vast, often dysfunctional Homeland Security Department. In the Pentagon’s deepest crevices, the Joint Special Operations Command has mushroomed in size and influence because of the demands of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The list goes on.
Partly this is because the high-tech makeover of the Situation Room, completed about two years ago, makes instantaneous conversation with field commanders easier than ever.Wow. How to live your life in a bubble, even in a time of war. I hope Obama takes note.
Both the transition officials and some White House insiders say it may make this communication too easy, sucking the commander-in-chief into a situation in which real-time, straight-from-the-battlefield discussions of tactics masquerade as a conversation about strategy.
But several veterans of the White House have noted in conversations over the past two years that the secure video does not lend itself to open, vigorous debate. Instead, it can squelch it. The picture is being piped into too many places; field commanders don’t want to speak their mind to the president if their immediate superiors at the Pentagon or Central Command are tuned in, too. There may be recordings for posterity, or presidential libraries.
One recently departed National Security Council official noted earlier this year that in his view, the problem is that the system is largely in the hands of war-fighters; only on a rare day, and only toward the end of his presidency, did members of Provincial Reconstruction Teams and other aid workers involved in nation-building pop up on Mr. Bush’s screen.
“The technology tends to skew the nature of the advice you hear,” this former N.S.C. member said, declining to speak on the record because the sessions he witnessed were classified. “You spend a lot more time talking about hitting a house of full of bad guys in Waziristan than you do talking about why our effort to build schools and roads is moving so slowly.”
At least we won't have the fake Rovian stories of graffiti, porn, broken machinery, and mangled keyboards. And if there are some 'pranks' pulled, I doubt Obama will want it reported.