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.

She, too, is a career official, with a resume that includes 27 years at the Justice Department. Her staff is putting together briefing books for immigration's next political cadre -- what has to be done in the first 30 days, then what's important for the next 60 days.

In coming months, career executives tapped to lead the transition at Homeland Security will attend leadership conferences and participate in crisis drills. "It's one thing putting players on the field and another to have them know each other and work as a unified team," Schneider said.

Creating an effective transition team is one of the Homeland Security Advisory Council's recommendations. It also may be one of the department's biggest challenges, said Donald F. Kettl, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studied the department's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina.

"Fast-moving problems require complex and interpersonal relationships that just don't grow up overnight," Kettl said. "Filling the chairs doesn't ensure that the problems get solved."

The department, though, may go into the transition with empty chairs, a prospect that worries some members of Congress.

Homeland Security has 763 executive positions, ranging from presidential appointees to technical experts. Forty of those slots were added in November, for senior executive service positions approved by the Office of Personnel Management.

Schneider said 128 jobs are vacant, a tally that includes the 40 new positions. He said 24 people have been selected to fill jobs but are not on board.

Congress is gearing up to study the department's transition plan. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), plans to hold a hearing this year. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is reviewing transition activities.

But Schneider, Ahern, Rossides and Bertucci, with their decades of federal experience, are confident that departmental operations will not be disrupted by comings and goings at the White House or in Washington headquarters buildings.

After all, Bertucci said, "It is the people in the field, outside the Beltway, that get the work done."

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is barrs@washpost.com.

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