DHS handoff worries lawmakers

A Homeland Security Department spokeswoman has identified five areas in DHS’ transition plans:

1. Establishing an order of succession.

2. Establishing a succession plan by having career employees as deputies to political appointees.

3. Determining best practices with help from advisory groups and committees.

4. Determining how to coordinate with other agencies during the transition.

5. Developing briefing materials and training sessions to prepare employees.

— Ben Bain

Lawmakers are increasingly concerned about how the Homeland Security Department will manage the challenge of transitioning to a new presidential administration. Meanwhile, some DHS officials’ reluctance to share transition materials with Congress has angered the House Homeland Security Committee chairman.

All agencies face similar challenges when tenants at the White House change once or twice in a decade. But with more than 200,000 employees and more than 20 different agencies, DHS isn’t a typical department.

Security experts say political transitions can be vulnerable times, as evidenced by recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom and Spain. Those incidents, combined with the departures of dozens of high-ranking political appointees at DHS, have raised concerns among members of Congress who oversee the department.

“It’s a matter of national security,” Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), ranking member on the Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee, said at a budget hearing last week. During normal transitions between administrations, “there is a period of several weeks, perhaps months, where [a] department is practically incapable of making a decision.”

Responding to a Feb. 7 letter from House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said it would be inappropriate to share “Executive Branch materials intended to be shared in the first instance with the incoming administration.”

Chertoff wrote Thompson that “while I appreciate the legitimate role of congressional oversight, I do not believe it would be appropriate — or even possible at this point — to share material related to this effort.”

Thompson said those claims of executive privilege jeopardize Congress’ oversight role. “I have resolved not to let the claims of secrecy cloud the oversight that is needed to ensure that our country is not left in a precarious situation due to poor transition planning,” Thompson said.

At a separate Senate hearing last week, Chertoff said he had briefed and would continue to brief interested members of Congress on the department’s initiatives.

DHS officials said they have been preparing for the transition since early spring 2007 and would brief the incoming secretary starting Dec. 1.

“We are very mindful that we are doing this for the first time,” said Amy Kudwa, DHS’ deputy press secretary.

“It’s very important that we not fumble on the handoff.”

Kudwa said her role as a career employee in a deputy position is indicative of how the department has been working to ensure that a career civil service employee is installed as a deputy to each of the department’s key leaders. She added that of about 50 people who now hold key management positions at DHS, 23 are political appointees and 25 are civil service employees — and three additional civil service employees will be hired soon.

The Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Administration Transition Task Force addressed transition concerns in a report it issued last month. That task force and several other groups are charged with helping the administration come up with best practices for transitioning to the new administration.

“The most important thing is, ‘Whose belly button do you push?’ ” David Walker, the departing comptroller general, said at a House subcommittee hearing last week.

Walker said he was impressed with initial drafts he had seen of DHS’ plans.
 

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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