Senior advisers to President-elect Joe Biden’s transition said Friday that as time passes, the lack of access to top-level intelligence for the former vice president will only get more concerning.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” when it comes to threats, said Jen Psaki, a senior transition adviser who worked in the Obama administration, including at the State Department.
Psaki was joined on a Friday transition update Zoom session by another former senior Obama administration official, Yohannes Abraham, who has been overseeing transition efforts since long before Election Day.
Biden, of course, does not need an education on the mechanics of White House operations or the national security apparatus, having served for eight years as vice president and more than three decades before that in the Senate. But that’s not why he needs access to top intelligence as president-elect.
“He doesn’t need a briefing on, you know, where to go to get things on a national security team. It’s the real time threat assessment information, intelligence briefing that we would like to see him have access to,” Psaki said.
“President-elect Biden has a wealth of experience spanning decades, as it relates to national security and foreign policy issues and he’s surrounded himself with a team that is similarly seasoned and experienced,” Abraham said. “But exactly as Jen said, each passing day, lack of access to current classified operations or backchannel conversations that are happening really put the American people’s interests, as it relates to intonational security, at risk.”
A number of Senate Republicans have said they see no issue with Biden getting high-level intelligence briefings, and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said he was prepared to take oversight action if such access was not granted by the end of the week. That sentiment has not been universal, however.
“He’s not president right now. Don’t know if he’ll be president January 20, but whoever is will get the information,” the Republican from California said Thursday.
The General Services Administration, which is responsible for making the so-called “ascertainment” of the president-elect, had not acted as of early Friday afternoon, and the agency had not responded to queries from CQ Roll Call, or even from Democratic members of Congress, about whether President Donald Trump was directing the GSA to deny the ascertainment.
Ron Klain, who will be Biden’s White House chief of staff, said Thursday night that the GSA issue had not yet had much of an effect, calling it a “relatively minor” hinderance.
“We have been able to proceed with building our COVID Task Force. We have been proceeding with our personnel meetings. We have been proceeding with our policy meetings. We have space that the private side of our transition has rented,” Klain said in an MSNBC interview. “We’re working very effectively and moving forward on business.”
With Trump scheduled to speak in the White House Rose Garden later Friday to provide an update on COVID-19 vaccine development and the rapid deployment effort known as Operation Warp Speed, Psaki and other members of the Biden team have also been focused on how not getting access to the government’s health agencies could imperil pandemic response planning.
“We’re not interested in having a fight with the GSA administrator or anyone really, we just want to get access to intelligence information, to threat assessments, to the ongoing work on COVID, so that we can prepare to govern, bring the American people together and get the pandemic under control,” she said.
Psaki also said that the Biden transition cannot yet have formal conversations with uniformed military leadership, even as Trump has fired now-former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and there is concern about more sweeping personnel moves in the national security apparatus.
“Until there’s ascertainment, there isn’t going to be official engagement between personnel, members of our agency review teams, many of whom have served for decades in national security agencies with current officials,” Psaki said Friday.
Klain said likewise Thursday, calling the position of GSA Administrator Emily Murphy “untenable.”
“COVID is a really good example. As you said at the outset of the program, we’re in a COVID crisis,” Klain said. “Right now, right now, there are officials inside the Department of Health and Human Services who are busy planning a vaccination campaign for the months of February and March, when Joe Biden will be president.”
In addition to the various hats Klain has worn as a senior Biden aide, including for years at the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was also the official tapped by President Barack Obama to oversee the Ebola response (for which he came to be known as the “Ebola czar”).
“And so, the sooner we can get our transition experts into meetings with the folks who are planning the vaccination campaign, the more seamless the transition from a Biden presidency to a Trump presidency can be,” Klain said.