Magazine article National Defense

Changing of the Guard

Magazine article National Defense

Changing of the Guard

Article excerpt

Transfer of power prompts homeland security fears

There will be a changing of the guard in January 2009 - and it will be a first.

Never before in its short history has the Department of Homeland security handed off its duties from one administration to another.

"There is a transition period but no honeymoon when it comes to protecting our homeland," said Rep. Henry Cuellar, DTexas, at a panel discussion. "We do need to work on (some issues)."

Transitional periods have put security personnel on alert in the past. There were fears in the run up to the last presidential race that al-Qaida would attack the United States in order to influence the outcome of the election. One extreme example is the 2004 railway bombings in Madrid that took place three days before Spain's general elections.

Regardless of whether Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., or Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wins the White House, the Michael Chertoff-led administration will need to transfer critical information and keep important personnel in place, panelists said.

In anticipation of this period of uncertainty, Congress requested that the National Academy of Public Administration prepare a timeline for the DHS transition. The 118-page report, released in June, set an aggressive schedule, which included the pre-clearance of top officials, appointing a transition team and swearing in a new DHS secretary on inauguration day.

This fast-track approach did not, however, account for structural changes that the new administration may wish to enact. Addressing DHS' perceived shortcomings might require significant changes.

"You're likely to see a hard look at organization," Parney Albright, former assistant secretary of homeland security for science and technology, who now works for Civitas Group, said at the briefing sponsored by the Homeland Defense Journal. "It's a system that's broken."

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., said while the structure of DHS should be retained, the positions must be filled with qualified experts radier than politicians.

"DHS has clearly experienced high and low points in the last six years," he said. "(There have been) delays in bureaucracy, leadership, questionable policies and dubious spending that the next administration will have to address."

Both Cuellar and Langevin, while pointing out numerous DHS inadequacies and organizational problems, maintained that abrupt changes to the existing DHS structure would leave the United States vulnerable.

"I would advise the incoming administration to resist the urge to eliminate or reorganize in the first 100 days," Cueller said.

"There have been several reorganizations since DHS was created in 2003," he added. "But I think it's time to stop reordering the boxes and let DHS concentrate on improving its functionality, governance and accountability. We need a department that is flexible."

One hot topic will be allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to leave DHS and revert to an independent entity. That idea has been bandied about Washington since the agency fumbled its response to Hurricane Katrina.

Cueller and Chairman of the House Homeland security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss, recently introduced the Homeland security Relief Corps Act that would give DHS a disaster response task force separate from FEMA. This would allow federal personnel from outside DHS to serve in a "response and recovery corps" in the event of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other emergencies. …

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