Barack Obama will be the first new president since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Both the incoming and outgoing administrations say they want a smooth transition because the country could be more vulnerable to a terrorist attack during the transfer of power.
The Homeland Security Department has been preparing for the change in administrations for the past 18 months. It has named career employees to fill the No. 2 or No. 3 spots in every division — such as the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — and prepared them to take over, if needed, during the transition. They'll also be able to train incoming political appointees.
"We want to be able to have in place experienced career people and substantial plans so that the new leadership that comes in is as well-positioned as possible to deal with any emergency," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told NPR.
He said his agency has been preparing detailed briefing books on everything it does, from protecting the border, to securing air travel, to responding to hurricanes. He also wants to sit down with his anointed successor, and his or her top aides, so they can participate in an exercise simulating a terrorist attack or natural disaster, before the new administration takes over.
"This will give us an opportunity to show them what we've done, give them an opportunity themselves to see what they would be confronting if there were an emergency," Chertoff said. "And again, it's part of trying to get them up to speed before the inauguration."
Right now, everyone seems on board. The bipartisan 9/11 Commission identified the change of administrations as a time when terrorists seem more inclined to attack. It cited the bombing of the USS Cole before the 2000 election, and the attacks eight months after President Bush took office. The commission also noted that many of Bush's top security officials weren't in place until shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Jenna Dorn is president of the National Academy of Public Administration, which recently prepared a transition study for Homeland Security at Congress' request.
"We just have to jump-start everything because, if past is prologue, terrorists love the opportunity of any kind of disruption, or maybe there's an uncertainty about who's in charge and they will drive a wedge through that," she said.
One of the first steps has been to speed up security clearances for transition aides — a process that began well before the election. The next step is for the president-elect to identify a homeland security secretary so Congress can get to work on confirming him or her — preferably within hours of the swearing-in.
Philip Zelikow was executive director of the 9/11 Commission and worked on the national security transition team in 2000 for then president-elect Bush. Zelikow says it is useful to have career employees ready and able to take the helm, but that only goes so far.
"People on autopilot don't have the authority to make tough decisions. They can make routine and standard decisions, but not necessarily tough ones," he said. "And the second issue is what if there's some area where I need to make a change, where I need to turn the boat in order to go someplace or to avoid something."
He added that a change in policy requires someone on the president's team, a political appointee who has his confidence and who has been on the job long enough to know what needs to be done.
"You have to have to have eight or nine officials who have the authority to make decisions, who are really up to speed in any given agency — at least. And that takes time," he said.
Meaning the sooner appointees are named, the better. President-elect Obama said last week that he wants to move with "deliberate haste" when it comes to filling key positions. But he also said he wants to emphasize the "deliberate" part, as well as the "haste," to avoid making mistakes.