‘Building a Government’: Obama to Unleash Transition Teams

WASHINGTON ~ US president-elect Barack Obama is sending evaluators to study the sprawling US bureaucracy to help him determine how best to meet his administration’s goals when he takes office on January 20.

Obama’s 450-strong transition team will scour more than 100 departments and agencies for data to underpin new policies as soon as his inauguration ushers in an historic presidency.

Transition co-chair John Podesta promised on Tuesday that Obama would publish the names of aides who will begin burrowing into government monoliths such as the State Department, Treasury and the Pentagon as early as Monday.

“This is part of our commitment to make this the most open and transparent transition in history,” Podesta said at his first post-election press conference here called to outline the process of “building a government.”

“Under president-elect Obama and vice president-elect Biden, the American people will see a transition of government that is efficient, that is organized, that is bipartisan and more open and transparent than others before.”

Podesta said the transition team would employ around 450 people in the US capital and Obama’s hometown Chicago with a budget of US$12 million.

As part of an accelerated effort to get the government up and running at a time of international turmoil, Podesta said more than 100 interim security clearances had already been issued to transition personnel.

Obama said during his first post-election press conference last week that he would move with “deliberate haste” to fill cabinet positions.

He has yet to make any nominations, though White House staff announcements are expected soon before heavy-hitting cabinet posts are announced – likely in Chicago.

The president-elect, honoring protocol that there is “only one president at a time,” will stay away from the weekend’s international economic summit in Washington. Some of his aides however will likely meet foreign delegates.

On Tuesday, Obama advisors tried to dispel suggestions of tensions with the White House after it emerged that he had pressed outgoing President George W. Bush in private talks on Monday for immediate aide for reeling US auto giants.

The New York Times cited unnamed sources as saying the president may agree to new funding for the troubled sector and a new economic stimulus package if Democrats pass a Colombia free trade pact which is stalled in Congress.

Obama aides denied Bush offered the Colombia pact as part of a deal.

“The topic of Colombia came up. There was no quid pro quo in the conversation,” Podesta said.

The Bush administration has promised unprecedented cooperation with the Obama transition team, and invited aides to the president-elect to shadow outgoing officials.

Podesta, a former Clinton administration chief-of-staff, also said the nascent administration was working through complicated issues involved in his campaign pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay “war on terror” camp in Cuba.

The Democratic president-elect is already under fierce pressure from human rights groups to close the controversial high-security facility but faces a legal minefield in deciding where to house inmates and how to try them.

“Senator Obama has said that he intends to close the facility at Guantanamo, that’s a complicated matter,” said Podesta.

“It’s under review … when we have something to say about that, we’ll say it.

“I think that moving the process forward and undertaking the review of how one would exactly accomplish that is a project that the transition will undertake, and then will be implemented by the new administration.”

Any decision to close Guantanamo, which opened in 2002 and has scarred America’s image abroad, will involve working out where to put inmates and require a new kind of legal structure to prosecute them.

Obama’s presidential transition team on Tuesday sidestepped a flurry of speculation that he would ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stay on in his administration.

Gates has been praised in both parties for his role since taking over the job two years ago, and the Wall Street Journal cited two unnamed Obama advisers Tuesday as saying the president-elect was leaning towards keeping Gates.

Podesta said Obama had “great respect” for Gates, but would wait to hear the findings of experts he is sending to probe Defense Department operations.

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