By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008
As Democrats for the first time take over the five-year-old Department of Homeland Security, the watchword for Obama transition aides is caution.
The next secretary will inherit the politically perilous tasks of securing the nation's borders against illegal immigration, as well as leading the federal response to natural disasters. He or she will take the helm of a $40 billion, 200,000-worker bureaucracy still in the throes of the most complex government merger since World War II, while contending with more than 80 congressional oversight committees and subcommittees.
Above all, the new secretary must help prevent the next terrorist attack on American soil, whatever form it might take.
Little wonder that Democrats are treading carefully.
"Not since the Eisenhower Administration took over the Department of Defense or the Reagan Administration assumed leadership of the Department of Energy have the stewards of our nation's security . . . been wholly or mostly replaced for the first time," analysts David Heyman and James Jay Carafano wrote in a September report, "Homeland Security 3.0," that noted the turmoil, distraction and delay caused by repeated reorganizations since the department's creation in 2003.
"The first priority of the next Congress and administration should be to end such unwarranted tinkering," wrote the pair, based at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Heritage Foundation, respectively.
President-elect Barack Obama seldom discussed homeland security during the long campaign, giving himself room to maneuver. His team has launched about a dozen experts on a broad policy review, paralleling the department's first Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, a major long-range planning study due in December.
Still, Obama's personnel choices, more than any other factor, will dictate the direction of the chronically troubled Cabinet agency. With so many of DHS's unwieldy responsibilities in flux, Heyman said, "the decision that matters is who you get in place. They will make the decisions on what the future of the department looks like."
Helping lead Obama's Homeland Security review is Rand Beers, a National Security Council staffer and Bush counterterrorism adviser who left the White House to advise 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.).
In 2006, Beers and former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism adviser Richard C. Clarke recommended that Homeland Security concentrate on securing major cities and coordinating the private sector to protect critical facilities and computer networks.
Other advisers include former DHS inspector general Clark Kent Irvin and P.J. Crowley, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, the Democratic think tank founded by Obama transition chief John D. Podesta. Along with others, Crowley has urged the next president to abolish the Bush White House's Homeland Security Council, merge it into the more powerful National Security Council, and make the president's homeland security adviser a deputy to his national security adviser.
Obama has vowed to appoint a national cyber adviser to report directly to the president, strengthen a White House privacy and civil liberties board, and allow about 60,000 Transportation Security Administration screeners to form a union, which President Bush stopped by issuing veto threats in 2002 and 2007.
Still, the remaining to-do list is long. One question is whether to leave the Federal Emergency Management Agency inside the department or to restore it to separate Cabinet-level status, as former FEMA chiefs James Lee Witt and Michael D. Brown sought. Powerful committee chairmen on Capitol Hill and other groups want a change, but doing so could lead to years of more wheel-spinning.
Another major political test is immigration. The Bush administration has increased spending on customs and immigration enforcement to $15 billion this year, up from $8.5 billion in 2004. Any attempt to redirect funds by a budget-strapped Obama administration could trigger criticism that it is retreating, said C. Stewart Verdery Jr., a DHS assistant secretary for policy from 2003 to 2005.
Democrats advising Obama think DHS will at least reconsider the aggressive use of workplace raids, which Latino groups who helped elect Obama want stopped.
The new secretary must also decide whether to push forward with a Bush administration plan, now stalled in federal court, to pressure 140,000 U.S. employers to fire workers whose names don't match their Social Security records. The AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce oppose the plan.
Obama will be pressed to weigh in by March 1 on a business-led fight in Congress to kill or scale back E-Verify, an electronic system that DHS wants companies to use to confirm the validity of work documents submitted by new hires.
DHS also faces looming financial problems. For instance, it will soon cost billions to replace aging airport screening systems installed after the 2001 terrorist attacks, said Michael P. Jackson, deputy secretary from 2005 until last year.
The department has invested heavily in big-ticket research projects -- such as developing a surveillance-based "virtual" fence to control the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border, next-generation radiation detection and X-ray cargo screening equipment to be used at U.S. and foreign ports, and biological weapons detection systems to stand watch over U.S. cities. But the initiatives have yet to deliver on their promise, and DHS must decide whether to fork out billions more to continue or to deploy them.
People close to the Obama team say that his choice for secretary will reveal his priorities. In addition to contenders listed in the accompanying box, frequently mentioned candidates include Clarke, former congressman Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), a member of the 9/11 Commission; Witt, head of FEMA under President Bill Clinton; former senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who helped lead the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, which warned before Sept. 11, 2001, that the country was ill prepared against terrorist attacks; former Navy secretary Richard J. Danzig, an influential bioterrorism strategist; U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad W. Allen; and retired Air Force Gen. Ralph E. "Ed" Eberhart, former commander of the North American Aerospance Defense Command.