NEWS

Chertoff Says U.S. Must be Vigilant During Transition to New President

By Matthew Harwood

As the United States prepares for the inauguration of a new president, the country must be vigilant during the transition period to a new administration, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday.

During the interview, Chertoff told Reuters that while there is no intelligence indicating that al Qaeda is preparing to attack the United States before or after the November 4 election, the country cannot drop its guard.

"In a transition, as people leave and new people come in, it's human nature to have some distraction, and therefore it's important to be extra-focused during that period so that distraction does not become a vulnerability."

Al Qaeda has a history of launching attacks around elections, as it did in Spain in 2004, the United Kingdom in 2007, and Pakistan in 2007. In September, The New York Sun reported that al Qaeda had notified local cells in foreign countries to await instructions for attacks on Western targets, ostensibly to influence the upcoming U.S. election.

As Assistant Editor Joseph Straw reports in November's Security Management, DHS has worried about the transistion for some time.

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.

Chertoff also said the possibility remains that an attack could come from a "disturbed" American.

"We live in an intemperate time, when a lot of people take political positions which they express not just with vigor but so often with animosity and anger, and there is always a danger that someone reading that or listening to that suddenly decides now they want to act out. That's why we have the Secret Service."

Both presidential candidates, senators John McCain and Barack Obama, have criticized each other's supporters for intemperate remarks.

Chertoff also worries that the financial crisis could harm homeland security efforts as a slowing economy results in state and local government budget deficits. Some states and local governments, according to Chertoff, have already started to use homeland security funds for dubious purposes, which he called "treating muggers as 'terrorists.'"

He recommended that each candidate choose top homeland security aides and begin working with departing DHS officials. DHS, as Straw reports, also has taken precautions.

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.

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