Could a Messy Hand-Off at Homeland Security Leave the U.S. Vulnerable?
Distracted by other issues, neither campaign has addressed the tricky handoff at DHS.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security are busily preparing a massive briefing book for the transition to a new administration, developing training exercises and anticipating difficulties, yet they have not yet had any formal contact with either the Obama or the McCain campaign.
Granted, the candidates have been distracted by more pressing problems. But a messy or protracted hand-off at DHS could leave the U.S. vulnerable, so officials there are doing as much as they can before the call comes. “DHS is ready and standing by,” says Rear Admiral John Acton, of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, who is leading the DHS transition team.
The Democrats don’t have “much of a bench” when it comes to homeland security, says one DHS alumnus.
At a roundtable discussion in Washington, DC, on Oct. 15, Acton outlined some of the special problems inherent in transferring authority at the young agency. “The long pole in the tent is the security clearance process,” he said. The quicker the required background checks are completed, the faster the confirmation process can unfold for top appointees.
But the additional problem is that homeland security is such a new field that there are relatively few well qualified people to choose from, and incoming officials—whether Democrats or Republicans—may need specialized training before taking up their new responsibilities.
Indeed, at the roundtable, which was sponsored by the Aspen Institute, the current assistant secretary of DHS for policy, Stewart Baker, noted (in what some audience members viewed as an unwarranted swipe) that the Democrats really don’t have “much of a bench” when it comes to homeland security.
For most federal departments, the party out of power traditionally organizes what amounts to a “shadow government” of former office holders, who bide their time until their party wins back the White House. But DHS didn’t exist the last time the Democrats were in power.
C. Stewart Verdery, Jr., who was an assistant secretary of DHS for policy and planning from 2003 to 2005 and is now a lobbyist, noted that he was not “formally” representing the McCain campaign at the roundtable discussion. But he went on to say, “I don’t expect you’d see wholesale changes to the DHS apparatus,” in a McCain administration.
On the campaign trail, McCain sometimes notes with pride that the U.S. has remained free from attack since 9/11, although in recent weeks issues of homeland security have largely been shouldered aside by more pressing economic concerns.
Verdery predicted that McCain would implement some measures, such as the Real ID drivers’ licenses—which have been resisted by local authorities because they were mandated without the funds to pay for them—and add an “exit” capability to the existing “entry” capability of the US-VISIT program at U.S. borders.
Verdery also implied that Joe Lieberman might be named the head of DHS in a McCain administration. The independent Senator from Connecticut, who currently chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, will “probably not be the most welcome guy” in the Democratic Party after this election, he said.
Senator Barack Obama also sits on that homeland security committee, and his legislative aide for DHS issues, Rachana “Ruchi” Bhowmik, presented his views at the Aspen event. She would not identify any individuals who might be appointed Secretary of DHS in an Obama administration, but she took her own swipe at the Republicans by saying that Obama “appreciates the need to restore professionalism and the need for management skills.”
Bhowmik agreed with Verdery that, given the huge financial problems confronting the U.S., neither candidate is likely to mount a wholesale reorganization of the five-year-old DHS.
Still, she said, Obama has some fundamental differences with the Bush adminstration about both the mission and the performance at DHS. Obama, she explained, favors an “all-hazards” approach that goes beyond counterterrorism to emphasize preparedness for natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and wildfire. That stems, in part, from the fact that Obama’s home state of Illinois, has been hit with “everything but locusts this year,” she said.
In the past, Obama has floated the idea of moving FEMA out of DHS. But push-back from various quarters on Capitol Hill—including from Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee—makes it unlikely that Obama would propose anything like that in the first 100 days.
Nevertheless, Obama takes issue with the idea that state and local governments should respond to local disasters entirely on their own and turn to the federal government only as a last resort. On the contrary, Obama believes it is the proper role of the federal government to come into a dire situation, such as Hurricane Katrina, she explained.
But in the view of the Obama camp, the Bush administration politicized DHS and dictated homeland security policy unwisely to the state and local governments. “Unless we pull ideology out of the driver’s seat,” she said, “we’ll see first responders getting told what to do by the feds.”
But homeland security “has not been a very hot topic” on the campaign trail, Bhowmick admitted. “The American people have other things they’re thinking about.”
Until something terrible and unforeseen happens.