U.K. Plot Raises Concerns Over U.S. Transition

The timing of the attempted attacks in Great Britain last week — just two days after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had taken office — has renewed concerns in the United States about vulnerability when a new president takes over this country.

The 9/11 Commission noted that the 2001 terrorist attacks came as the Bush administration was still getting on its feet. Many top officials were fresh on the job, and key security posts were still unfilled.

"We found that, at least in the United States, there is a period of vulnerability during transitions, particularly from one party to another," said Jamie Gorelick, who was a member of the commission and a former official in both the Defense Dept. and the Justice Dept.

Gorelick said that at the start of any new administration, at least in the White House, there are empty files and what she called no "corporate memory."

"And we take a great deal of time in getting people confirmed, and getting people into their positions of political appointees in the various departments," she said. "And between the two of those, you have a period of vulnerability, which is very worrying."

In its report after the Sept. 11 attacks, the commission recommended that future administrations be better prepared, so a national security team can be up and running right from the start. The panel called for accelerated background checks and faster Senate confirmation of political appointees.

But David Heyman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the problem was still apparent in the first year of President Bush's second term, when Hurricane Katrina hit.

A detailed plan to respond to such disasters had been drawn up a year earlier and signed by members of the Cabinet.

"And yet none of them except, I think, Secretary Rumsfeld, were there at the time of Katrina. We had a response plan. But the people who were leading government at the time of Katrina were no longer, had not been versed," Heyman said. "And, in fact, it was just at the beginning, frankly, of Secretary Chertoff's tenure."

Michael Chertoff was the new secretary of homeland security, and was focused on other issues.

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said the department is now actively planning for the next change.

"We are developing succession plans for each of our component agencies and offices, so that we have career leadership in place and cross trained, and ready well in advance of a political transition in January, 2009," he said.

Knocke said the agency is identifying top civil servants at each department — such as Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration — who can run things until political appointees are replaced.

Knocke said it's unknown if the recent incidents in Great Britain were tied to a change in government, but that it's a real concern.

"When you're talking about a department where the personnel have to really get it right 100 percent of the time, there just simply is no margin for error," Knocke said.

This is exactly what has some people concerned. The Homeland Security Department has had tremendous growing pains, and high turnover, during its four years in existence.

"I think the fact that it is new, that it has not gone through a transition before, that it has more political appointees embedded in the department than most other departments — I think that all adds a special challenge," said Randy Beardsworth, who was assistant secretary for strategic plans at the department until September 2006.

Beardsworth said he thinks the agency is better prepared than it was in 2004, but added, "It's a mixed bag. I think there are real pockets of expertise within the department."

He said the older, more established components, such as the Coast Guard and Customs were looking strong. But that other areas need work, especially if a new administration is to be ready to handle a crisis from Day One.

Gorelick said she thinks everyone is a lot more sensitive now to what's at stake during a transition, although she's not sure the confirmation process will move more quickly.

Heyman said he takes comfort from the fact that most of the change is only at the very top.

"On the ground, our local law enforcement, our firefighters, local government, not everybody turns over at the times of national elections and the people who have to be our first preventers of terrorism, and our first responders, are there pretty much on a day to day basis," Heyman said.

He noted that it was an alert ambulance crew that reported the first suspicious vehicle in London last week.

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