Thursday, June 26, 2008

DHS Lags in Preparations for Transition of Power, Study Says

Noting Timing of Terrorist Attacks, Report Urges Readiness
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008; A17

The Department of Homeland Security is moving too slowly to prepare for the risks that will accompany the first presidential transition for U.S. counterterrorism agencies formed after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to a study scheduled for release today.

The department's plan to train scores of key career officials, temporarily fill the posts of 26 departing political appointees and complete a transition plan are insufficient or should be accelerated, according to a 118-page report by the National Academy of Public Administration that was funded by Congress and DHS.

The report urged the presumptive presidential nominees, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), to move more quickly than previous candidates to submit the names of top aides for security clearances in order to ensure that they are ready to handle a national security crisis upon taking office.

Breaking with tradition by moving the deadline up two months -- to September from November -- would ensure that background checks are completed in time for officials to receive classified briefings the day after Election Day.

"For a first-ever presidential transition in an era of terrorism, we need to think and act nontraditionally," said the academy's president, Jennifer L. Dorn.

In a 9/11-style incident or other crisis after Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, an untested team of presidential advisers and unfamiliar career officials would have to make instant decisions, she said.

"The question is, will there be trust and confidence in the judgment of career personnel who come rushing in to the White House to say, 'Mr. President, we recommend shutting down the nation's air traffic control system'?" Dorn said.

The report marks the latest in a string of assessments by outsiders as well as actions taken by DHS leaders to make sure that critical security agencies remain effective as they undergo the first handoff from one president to another.

Terrorists may seek to exploit the transfer of power, the report said, noting the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, five weeks after President Bill Clinton took office; the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, eight months after President Bush took office; the Madrid train bombings in March 2004, three days before national elections; and failed car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow just days after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown assumed power.

Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said the senator "agrees that the next president will need to expedite the transition process, and if elected, will take the steps necessary to ensure a safe, fast and orderly process." Randy Scheunemann, McCain's foreign policy and national security director, said that "Senator McCain is acutely aware of challenges associated with a wartime transition, and he will address these matters in the appropriate way at the appropriate time."

Elaine C. Duke, DHS acting undersecretary for management, said the report shows that DHS is on track and far ahead of other departments, but she added: "Do I agree we have more to do? Certainly. We will be working on this every day."

Under pressure from Congress, homeland security officials held exercises for top officials in February and May, increased the number of career executives, lengthened the chain of succession to the DHS secretary and identified top career officials to serve as interim leaders in about two dozen vital positions.

The DHS also is preparing transition handbooks and briefing materials and will finish a formal transition plan in October.

But the academy report said DHS should complete a comprehensive plan by the time both parties have finished their national conventions, Sept. 4.

The department is behind schedule in setting up training workshops planned for July 1 and has not identified career officials to fill all vacated political appointee slots.