Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says he is working to prepare the Pentagon for the first wartime presidential transition since Vietnam and has asked civilian officials to be prepared to stay on at the request of the next president.
Gates, who has served in seven presidential administrations, said transitions had become slower over 25 years, with more and more senior civilian positions remaining vacant for long periods.
"This is the first wartime transition in 40 years, and I want to make sure we do not drop the baton," Gates said during a news conference aboard his plane en route to Washington.
The last time a presidential administration shifted during war was 1969, when the Johnson administration handed oversight of the Vietnam War to Richard M. Nixon.
Gates said that during the beginning of a new presidential term, vacancy rates at the assistant secretary level frequently topped 20%, hampering a new president.
"I have been through a lot of these and I have seen them up close, and I want to see if we can improve on the past," he said.
Gates said he recently asked senior Pentagon civilian officials to be prepared to remain in their jobs until their successors have been confirmed by Congress, to avoid "a lot of empty seats on the civilian side" in the middle of a war.
"Obviously that is up to a new president, but I want him to have at least a choice of having some continuity while the confirmation process moves forward so a new secretary does not arrive and find, on the civilian side, they are all alone," Gates said.
Gates endorsed an idea advanced by Richard L. Armitage, a former Bush administration official, and Michele A. Flournoy, a former Clinton administration official, in a Washington Post opinion article this week. They advocated early background checks for a pool of likely national security nominees. Gates also suggested that senators consider submitting questions to potential officials before the next president was inaugurated.
Gates said he asked the Defense Policy Board, a group of outside advisors that helps the Pentagon formulate policy, to examine issues his successor would encounter, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and tensions with Iran.