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Presidential Transition and National Security

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Jennifer L. Dorn
President, National Academy of Public Administration
Thursday, June 26, 2008; 1:00 PM

Jennifer L. Dorn, president of the National Academy of Public Administration, was online Thursday, June 26 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the group's research into the national security needs and dangers in the Department of Homeland Security's first transition between presidential administrations -- and what the candidates need to do soon to ensure a smooth transition.

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The transcript follows.

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washingtonpost.com: Hi, this is Jenna Dorn, National Academy of Public Administration fellow, and president. Just to start the ball rolling: I think one of the panel's main messages is that for a first-ever presidential election in an era of terrorism, we need to do things very differently. Unfortunately, it's a new world. The key people who will keep us safe -- that trusted partnership of career and political decision-makers -- must be ready to act on Inauguration Day. They must have been read into the complex intelligence, be intimately familiar with the National Response Framework and the roles and responsibilities of all the players at every level of government, and have engaged in some large-scale operational exercises. That means a presidential transition that is not business as usual...

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Washington: I'm not quite sure this story concerning DHS's high number of vacancies heading into the transition is news. The inability to hire and retain staff for senior and mid-level managerial positions has been the norm since DHS was created. Do you think the next administration will consider serious restructuring of the department, or is the Department of Homeland Security as it presently is constituted here to stay?

Jennifer L. Dorn: The National Academy panel acknowledged that that it is not surprising that DHS has not fully achieved its intended role -- providing an integrated and comprehensive approach to homeland security -- given the sheer scope of its mission and the difficulties it has faced since its founding in 2003. Our study didn't address whether or how to restructure DHS.

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Philadelphia: Are homeland security programs in danger of becoming something where we need a homeland security program in every congressional district, or is Congress going to accept a national priority list?

Jennifer L. Dorn: Communities all over America already intricately are involved in homeland security. That's one of the reasons the academy's panel felt strongly that incoming presidential appointees and transition teams be very familiar with the National Response Framework. That's the very comprehensive document that lays out the roles and responsibilities of all the players -- federal, state, local, private and nonprofit -- in homeland security preparedness and response.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What should be the emphasis of homeland security? Should it concentrate on a nationwide effort, or should it be targeted to specific areas?

Jennifer L. Dorn: The panel believes that the emphasis right now should be on addressing the gaps that currently exist in the department's transition planning efforts. Much work has been done -- but there still is a lot to do. Unfortunately, the new realities of a terrorist environment mean that each presidential candidate has to begin thinking about their homeland security transition teams now -- that way, security clearances can be completed and these teams can begin the significant work of understanding the complex intelligence involved. Building relationships with players at every level of government also takes time.

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RichRable: Perhaps certain departments should be organized with high level professional civil service people instead of political appointees ... it's a thought...

Jennifer L. Dorn: Interesting question ... and one of the ones the panel was asked to assess. The anel found that the overall allocation of noncareer and career executives at DHS is reasonable, based on a comparison of other, similarly structured agencies.

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DPoniatowski: Gosh, a current administration institution urging revelation of potential appointees by presidential candidates, I wonder what the reasoning is? This is highly unusual, and obviously is designed to generate fodder for the incumbent political party.

Jennifer L. Dorn: The National Academy is an independent, nonpartisan organization, not part of any administration. The panel's view was that it's very important for both presidential candidates to identify their homeland security transition teams early on so that they can get security clearances. Yes, one team won't be needed, but it's vital to be ready.

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ronjeske: This administration never has been guilty of planning ahead for anything -- why should the transition to the next administration be the only time that it does? This is just one more example of the ineptitude that pervades this administration. The transition will be done and new people named as chiefs before the plans are done.

Jennifer L. Dorn: The panel found that DHS's transition plans are positive, and should help reduce risks associated with the large number of key executives departing with the presidential transition. ... In fact, we found that they are ahead of many agencies in their planning. We also said that the plans need to be better coordinated, and completed as early as possible.

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Burke, Va.: Did the academy have an opinion on whether FEMA belongs in the Department of Homeland Security?

Jennifer L. Dorn: That was not our charge. We did recommend, though, that FEMA should reduce the number of executive positions that are currently non-career, and make them career officials, instead. For some of these positions, that would require a change in law.

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avahome: Can you just feel the wind blowing in your face? I sure hope the other departments in our government are being prepared for transition. This just smacks of crisis management.

Jennifer L. Dorn: Hmmmm ... not sure I feel the wind in my face, but our panel did find that DHS was ahead of many other departments in its transition planning.

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darmar40: This department should be abandoned, as it clearly does not function! The director must be investigated immediately, and those political positions should be abolished. I am sure the American people would agree that a career worker asking to shut down the ATC would be at more risk than a political appointee! Get rid of all political appointees throughout the federal government now!

Jennifer L. Dorn: I'm not sure that your conclusion is supported by your premise, if you get what I mean ... the beauty of our American political system is that we have both political and career leaders. As our report says, "political appointees bring new energy, perspective and responsiveness, while career staff are critical to continuity and the efficient operation of government programs." Each has a role to play -- and in an era of terrorism, the trusted partnership for difficult decisions, made instantaneously, is even more critical.

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Jennifer L. Dorn: Thanks so much, everyone who sent a question. Just a final thought -- in the past, new government executives had the relative luxury of time to get adjusted to their roles. That's no longer the case. We can't assume that terrorists -- or mother nature, for that matter -- will give them the time for the traditional "on-the-job" training.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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