During a speech outlining the security problems the United States will face up to and through 2025, the Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told an audience of intelligence officials and contractors yesterday that the U.S. is most vulnerable to attack during a new president's first year in office.
"What I highlight is the first attack on the World Trade Center was attacked in the first year of President Clinton," he said at the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. "And the second attack was in the first year of President Bush. So those who wish us harm realize this is a period for us when we are still adjusting to making decisions and understanding and so on."
Since 9-11, U.S. allies—Spain, the United Kingdom, and Pakistan—have all been attacked by al Qaeda or jihadist terrorists just before and after elections. This history, according to Security Management Assistant Editor Joe Straw, has led the Department of Homeland Security to tap senior career government executives to fill top-level management positions until the political appointees are confirmed by the Senate so a vacuum of leadership doesn't exist during the presidential transition.
As Straw noted:
As the last presidential transition demonstrated, appointment and confirmation of the political appointees who run key federal agencies can happen very slowly. The Bush Administration’s search for a new FBI director did not end until Robert Mueller’s nomination on July 5, 2001, nearly six months after Inauguration Day. He was confirmed by the Senate on August 2 and went to work September 4, just one week before 9-11.
While the threat of an al Qaeda attack remains ever present, McConnell said that with the help of the intelligence community, al Qaeda in Iraq's leadership and its foot soldiers have been reduced by 65 to 80 percent. He called this an "incredible accomplishment."
But al Qaeda isn't the only threat the next president or his successors will face over the next decade and a half. The rise of economic powers such as China, India, and Russia; the growing strength of non-state actors, such as terrorist and criminal organizations; competition over scarce resources, such as water and agricultural products, magnified by climate change; on top of the spread of destructive technologies will create many possibilities for conflict.
"During the period of this assessment, out to 2025, the probability for conflict between nations and within nation-state entities will be greater," McConnell said.