With the changing of administrations, the United States likely faces an elevated threat of a terrorist attack, because history has shown that terrorists see opportunity in such transitional periods. The 1993 World Trade Center attack occurred within six weeks of a new administration’s arrival and the 9-11 attacks within nine months of a presidential transition. Similarly, the March 2004 Madrid train bombings came three days before Spanish national elections and are widely believed to have indirectly affected their result.
Last year’s botched London-Glasgow attacks unfolded two and three days after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office, while in advance of Pakistan’s February national elections, attacks on a political rally and a party office killed 64.
Experts worry that terrorists may perceive vulnerability created by the administrative transition, in particular at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its partner agencies. In its Administration Transition Task Force Report issued early this year, DHS’s Homeland Security Advisory Council placed the peak threat period from 30 days prior to the change in administrations, to six months after.
As the last presidential transition demonstrated, appointment and confirmation of the political appointees who run key federal agencies can happen very slowly. The Bush Administration’s search for a new FBI director did not end until Robert Mueller’s nomination on July 5, 2001, nearly six months after Inauguration Day. He was confirmed by the Senate on August 2 and went to work September 4, just one week before 9-11.
To prevent a leadership vacuum during the coming critical months, DHS began this year by queuing up senior career government executives, who typically answer to political appointees, to fill those top-level management positions on an as-needed basis during the transition to the next administration. DHS has also asked the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to offer recommendations on how to maintain homeland security during the presidential transition. NAPA’s report, completed earlier this year, called for various steps that would accelerate the process of getting new officials in place at DHS.
Among the NAPA recommendations was the engagement of both major presidential campaigns during the summer for selection of transition teams, members of which were subject to security clearances. This summer The Wall Street Journal reported the process was underway, although neither major campaign, nor the DHS, would comment directly.
The report also recommends that the president-elect put forth a nominee for the head of DHS as soon as possible after the election so that the Senate can expedite vetting and the new secretary can be sworn in after the president on January 20. Historically, a new administration’s Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State are confirmed by the Senate immediately following inauguration and take the oath of office that day.
To follow that model would require the cooperation of Senate leadership, in particular that of its Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is currently chaired by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT). A committee aide says, “It is safe to say that Sen. Lieberman would do what is necessary to hold a nomination hearing to expedite the new DHS secretary’s swearing in.”
Separately, DHS section managers have drafted briefing books for their successors that will serve as references on responsibilities and critical issues faced during crises, as well as 30-, 60-, and 90-day deadlines for transition milestones.
The NAPA report also calls for a major scenario exercise soon after the inauguration to help familiarize newcomers with national policies and procedures.
Matt Meyer, former head of DHS’s domestic terrorism preparedness office and now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., sees the greatest vulnerabilities stemming from the loss of trusted interpersonal relationships—widely considered the key to homeland security—as personnel shifts occur.
Among the DHS agencies in good hands, Meyer says, is the U.S. Coast Guard, currently under Commandant Adm. Thad Allen. As a quasi-military agency, it is not subject to a leadership change on political grounds. Similarly well situated is Customs and Border Protection, where agency veteran and Deputy Commissioner Jayson P. Ahern is a respected career executive. Meyer sees possible transition woes, however, at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Citizenship and Immigration Service, and the Transportation Security Administration.
Anyone concerned about the government’s preparation for the coming transition can take heart that planning has occurred at all. During the run up to the 2004 presidential election, just three years after 9-11, DHS engaged in what one agency official called “minimal” transition planning, while Meyer says he doesn’t recall any at all.