Transfer of Power Prompts Homeland Security Fears

By Sara Peck
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, D-Texas, 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 rather 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.

There is also the need for better cooperation across the 22 agencies that comprise DHS. Agency infighting and redundancies are inefficient and costly, Langevin explained.

Cueller said risk-based funding  — prioritizing funding and staff to high-risk threats — cyber-security and mass emergency communication are pressing concerns that have not been addressed thoroughly by the department.

  “On 9/11 we learned that our first responders had trouble communicating between federal, state and local,” Cueller said.

Though 9/11 certainly influenced the creation of DHS itself, some logistical changes need to happen to better enable the department to inform civilians and emergency response teams in the event of an attack, he said.

“Despite (some improvements), the office of emergency communications is buried in DHS without any visibility,” Cueller said. “We should appoint an assistant secretary to manage the office.”

A smooth handoff from President Bush to Obama or McCain is not the only concern. Both Obama and McCain representatives said DHS cannot continue into 2009 as is.

Ruchi Bhowmik, a legislative assistant to Obama, described DHS as a “somewhat delinquent student” shirking from his duties. “There are some outstanding assignments that have to be turned in by the next administration,” she said.

An Obama administration would likely invest in sensor technologies for border security, make improvements to hospital preparedness and add funding for the upkeep of federally funded equipment given to local and state emergency service teams, she added.

There needs to be funds in place to pay for the upkeep of existing technologies before new ones can be deployed, she said. “Graveyards of fire trucks” are left dormant because of state funding cuts, she added.

As far as structural changes, Bhowmik said redundancies within DHS and the Defense Department need to be eliminated to heighten efficiency and information-sharing across local, state and federal tiers. Several agencies sometimes hold the same responsibilities and poorly
communicate, she said.

Lee Carosi Dunn, a legislative assistant to McCain, said improving first responder communication should be a DHS priority for the next administration. On 9/11, thick marble walls hampered communications between victims inside the towers and rescue teams on the ground.

DHS could use the D-block radio spectrum to make communications more efficient. These valuable frequencies could be used by telecommunications companies during non-emergencies, and then handed over to first responders in the event of an attack, Dunn said.

An overhaul of mass transit security and further implementation of risk-based funding are also among McCain’s priorities. “A lot of these issues really are bipartisan,” she said.

As far as reorganizing DHS, McCain “has some ideas,” Dunn said, but she did not put forth any specific changes.

Regardless of who sits in the White House come inauguration day, changes will inevitably be made to existing programs that have fallen short, panelists said.

“At the end of the day, DHS is only as strong as the leadership behind it,” Bhowmik said. “Far too often we are reactionary, but with new leadership there will be a renewed focus (for DHS).”

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Budget, DHS Leadership, Disaster Response

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