By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2009
Wary of being caught short-handed in case of a domestic crisis, the Obama administration has asked nearly two dozen Bush administration officials in the Department of Homeland Security to stay in their jobs until successors can be named.
The attempt at continuity is unusual in presidential transitions between parties, which typically lead to wholesale purging of politically appointed personnel. At the Justice Department, for example, almost no Bush holdovers remain beyond Deputy Attorney General Mark R. Filip, who is acting as attorney general pending confirmation of Obama nominee Eric H. Holder Jr., and Filip's two top aides.
By contrast, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has retained the department's second-ranking official, Deputy Secretary Paul A. Schneider, and its top border security official, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham, as well as its operations director and the assistant secretaries responsible for policy and private sector coordination. The heads of the Coast Guard and Secret Service, who are not political appointees, and DHS Undersecretary for Management Elaine C. Duke, whose tenure is set by law, also remain.
Napolitano acted "to assure a smooth and effective transition in a department whose responsibility for the security of the American people is paramount," spokesman Sean Smith said. "People were exercising prudent caution."
At the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, eight months into George W. Bush's first term as president, many senior counterterrorism posts were still vacant. National emergency plans have since been changed to require some DHS officials to be in place to handle key government functions. Democrats have never run the five-year-old department, leaving them less familiar with its operations.
"You don't want these jobs to be empty. But the question will be: How quickly do they fill those jobs with new competent people?" said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The group has cited the department's troubled merger of 22 component agencies, contracting problems and low employee morale in calling it "an unworkable, incompetent bureaucracy."
Still, in some parts of DHS, senior jobs are vacant. On Wednesday, 11 top officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency left their jobs. They had been asked to stay on through the inauguration. Only one Bush appointee, grants administrator W. Ross Ashley, remains.
DHS and transition officials say the director of FEMA, as well as the heads of CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are top priorities that could be filled at any time. Sources said Napolitano was close to naming as her deputy Jane Holl Lute, the United Nations' assistant secretary for peacekeeping, a former chief operating officer of the U.N. Foundation and National Security Council staffer for European affairs.
"The secretary is moving swiftly but responsibly to fill these key positions," Smith said, noting that Napolitano had been focused on the transition but was also serving as Arizona governor until her confirmation Tuesday.
Still, the FEMA post in particular has proved hard to fill in the past, and any delay is costly, according to state emergency managers. Departing FEMA chief R. David Paulison succeeded Michael D. Brown in the weeks after the government's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But Paulison was formally offered the job months later after several others turned it down, in part because of FEMA's troubled relationship with its parent department and Congress.
The incoming chief will confront a renewed debate over whether to make FEMA a stand-alone agency. At the same time, FEMA is juggling ongoing major recovery operations from Katrina and 2008 hurricanes Gustav and Ike in Texas, with several critical decisions tied up in red tape and bureaucratic appeals.
"While these decisions are pending, there are people in need," said Trina R. Sheets, executive director of the National Emergency Management Association, which represents the directors of FEMA's state counterparts. "It's very, very important to have the primary leadership positions at FEMA filled."
Staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.