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Homeland Security Department Preps For Transition
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Homeland Security Department Preps For Transition

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Here's an aspect of the transition where the president-elect will be breaking new ground. Barack Obama will be the first new president to take office since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. And as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, members of the government say a smooth transition is critical at a time when the country could be more susceptible to a terrorist attack.

PAM FESSLER: The head of the Transportation Security Administration, Kip Hawley, did something unusual at a House hearing this summer. He turned to a woman in the front row and introduced her.

Mr. KIP HAWLEY (Head, Transportation Security Administration): I'd also like to recognize the deputy administrator of TSA, Gale Rossides, who is behind me, who will be acting administrator when there is a change of administration.

FESSLER: For more than a year, Rossides has been a kind of shadow head of the agency, chairing weekly meetings and taking on other top jobs. She's one of several dozen career employees at the Homeland Security Department who have been put in the second or third spots at Customs, TSA, FEMA and elsewhere, and trained to take over, if needed, during the transition.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Homeland Security Department): 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.

FESSLER: Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in an interview with NPR that it's important no one drop the ball during what could be a vulnerable time. He says his agency is 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.

Secretary CHERTOFF: 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. And again, it's part of trying to get them up to speed before the inauguration.

FESSLER: And right now, everyone seems onboard. 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 over. The commission also noted that many of Bush's top security officials weren't in place until shortly before the 9/11 attacks. Jenna Dorn is president of the National Academy of Public Administration, which recently prepared a transition study for Homeland Security at Congress's request.

Ms. JENNA DORN (President, National Academy of Public Administration): 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.

FESSLER: So 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. He says it's useful to have career employees ready and able to take the helm, but that only goes so far.

Mr. PHILIP ZELIKOW (Former Executive Director, 9/11 Commission): People on autopilot don't have the authority to make tough decisions. They can make routine and standard decisions, but not necessarily tough ones. And the second issue is, what if there's some area that, where I need to make a change, where I need to turn the boat in order to go someplace or to avoid something.

FESSLER: He says a change in policy requires someone on the president's team, a political appointee who has his confidence and who's been on the job long enough to know what has to be done.

Mr. ZELIKOW: You 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.

FESSLER: 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 positions. But he also said he wanted to emphasize the deliberate part, as well as the haste, to avoid mistakes. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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