JOHN YDSTIE, Host:
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: 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.
JAMIE GORELICK: We found that, at least in the United States, there is a period of vulnerability during transitions, particularly from one party to another.
FESSLER: Jamie Gorelick was a member of the commission and an official in both the Defense and Justice Departments. She says at the start of any new administration, at least in the White House, there are empty files and what she called no corporate memory.
GORELICK: 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. Between the two of those, you have a period of vulnerability, which is very worrying.
FESSLER: David Heyman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the problem was still apparent though 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.
DAVID HEYMAN: 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. And in fact it was just at the beginning, frankly, of Secretary Chertoff's tenure.
FESSLER: As secretary of Homeland Security, where he was focused on other issues. The result was a disaster. Now Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke says the department is actively planning for the next change.
RUSS KNOCKE: 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.
FESSLER: He says 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.
KNOCKE: When you're talking about a department where the personnel have to really get it right 100 percent of the time, there's just simply no margin for error.
FESSLER: Randy Beardsworth is one of those who left. Until last September he was assistant secretary for strategic plans at the department.
RANDY BEARDSWORTH: I think the fact that it is new, that it hasn't gone through a transition before, that it has more political appointees embedded in the department than most of the other departments - I think that all adds a special challenge.
FESSLER: He thinks the agency is better prepared than it was in 2004, but adds...
BEARDSWORTH: It's a mixed bag. I think that there are real pockets of expertise within the department.
FESSLER: Jamie 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. David Heyman says he takes comfort from the fact that most of the change is only at the very top.
HEYMAN: 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.
FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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