Homeland Security Prepares for Its First Transition

By Stephen Barr
Monday, January 21, 2008

The handoff to the next administration is a year off, but Paul. A. Schneider, the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, is making plans and keeping track of key lieutenants with a color-coded chart.

The chart shows critical jobs at 25 agencies and offices in the department. Schneider's goal is to make sure that either the No. 1 or No. 2 in each post is a career civil service employee. When Bush administration political appointees go out the door next January, the career employees will provide for continuity of operations on the borders, at airports and in the headquarters.

It will be the first transition for Homeland Security, created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

And it needs to go smoothly, because the weeks before and after Jan. 20, 2009, may be a period of heightened vulnerability for the country. Pakistan, Britain and Spain were hit by bombings during national elections. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing came shortly after the start of the Clinton administration.

"It is in the transition period, when people are doing the handoff, that there is a natural degree of confusion, which creates an invitation to people to carry out terrorist attacks or other damaging enterprises," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the department's advisory council this month.

At the department's request, the council, which includes local and state officials, nonprofit and corporate executives, and academics, prepared recommendations for the transition. The department also has sought transition advice from the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government and the National Academy of Public Administration.

"We are in excellent condition," Schneider said in an interview. He pointed to career executives such as Jayson P. Ahern at Customs and Border Protection as the reason for his optimism that the transition will go smoothly.

"Jay Ahern is a career civil servant, with over 30 years of experience," Schneider said. "Having him as the No. 2 now and as acting commissioner during the transition makes me feel pretty good."

Ahern said Customs and Border Protection management has great confidence in the agency's 30,000 officers in the field who inspect travelers and cargo at about 300 ports of entry. His goal, Ahern said, is "to not have them distracted at all by the transition" and "to ensure that people maintain their focus on the mission."

At the Transportation Security Administration, Gale Rossides, the deputy administrator and a career federal executive, chairs a meeting of TSA's senior leadership team every Wednesday. The three-hour sessions involve budgets, programs and priorities, including "which things transition over to 2009 and beyond," she said.

Eleven of the 13 senior leaders in the agency are career employees, but some came from the private sector for a three-year stint and others may be eligible for retirement, Rossides said. So she is meeting with them to double-check that they "have really signed up" for the transition and will work at least through 2009.

Theresa C. Bertucci, deputy assistant secretary for management at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has identified 61 vital positions at ICE, tried to figure out who may be leaving and sought to determine who is ready for promotion to fill any gaps in the leadership ranks.

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