The Wall Street Journal-20080111-Politics - Economics- Homeland Security Handoff- Career Employees Move Into Positions Once Held By Political Appointees

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Politics & Economics: Homeland Security Handoff; Career Employees Move Into Positions Once Held By Political Appointees

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WASHINGTON -- As the presidential campaign accelerates, Homeland Security has begun an unusual -- and potentially controversial -- effort to smooth the transition to a new administration, a time in which the country has traditionally been vulnerable.

The department is already beginning to position career staffers to move into some of the key jobs held by political appointees set to depart with President Bush in January 2009. The change in power will mark the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks that the reins of government will change hands.

"We should not let ourselves drop the ball on the handoff," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a recent interview, adding that his department has assembled "something unusual from a historical standpoint" in its plans to hand over a fully-functioning homeland- security operation to the next administration. The department is a complex amalgam of 22 federal agencies stationed in 10 offices in the Washington area and outposts around the country, including 450 airports and 300 other ports of entry.

New administrations typically mistrust the decisions of their predecessors, said Paul Light, a government-bureaucracy specialist at New York University. That may be especially true for Homeland Security, given that the five-year-old department has earned a reputation within government as more of "a source of problems than achievement," Mr. Light says. Critics of the department also may take umbrage at Mr. Chertoff extending his reach beyond the current administration.

"The incoming administration may well ask whether or not the career person was appointed on the basis of merit or on the basis of political connections," Mr. Light said. "That creates quite a bit of tension."

Transitions can be highly partisan, even childish, affairs. In 2001, staffers damaged or removed "w" keys from White House computer keyboards. Frequently, outgoing officials leave little more than empty desks for their successors, particularly when another party comes to power. That period is "an area where traditionally there's a danger," Mr. Chertoff said.

President Clinton faced the 1993 World Trade Center bombing within his first two months in office, and Sept. 11 came within President Bush's first eight months. Mr. Light estimates that half the political appointees relating to terrorism were not in place that day. The 2004 Madrid bombings and the botched car bombings in the United Kingdom last summer occurred within days of national elections.

Government specialists say there is no clear historical parallel for a new department like Homeland Security transitioning to a new administration. Its challenges are unique in part because questions about how the department does its job are "still up for grabs," said Amy Zegart, a public-policy professor at the University of California Los Angeles who specializes in national security. The Department of Homeland Security is "not a well-oiled machine," she added. "The chance that things will fall through the cracks, or that people will step on toes, is extremely high."

Theresa C. Bertucci, who heads up management for Homeland Security's immigration enforcement wing, calls the effort unique. "In my 26 years at [the Justice Department], we were sort of left to our own devices until the transition team of the new administration went in."

The Bush administration has come under fire from critics who say it rewarded loyalty over experience in flooding the top ranks of Homeland Security with presidential appointees. That exacerbated the risk of a leadership exodus. Department officials say the critique is overblown, noting that the 208,000-employee department has about 200 political appointees.

With an eye toward continuity, Mr. Chertoff and his top deputies are working to swap what had been political positions with career government employees. This week, the No. 2 slot at the Transportation Security Administration was filled with a 30-year veteran of the federal government, Gale Rossides, who has been with TSA since its inception six years ago and previously worked at the Treasury Department.

"It's the career people who have the years of experience dealing with an issue," she said. "The career people can say, 'In 2004, we tried this; it didn't work.'" Ms. Rossides, who was previously TSA's work-force guru, is busily assembling the transition plan for her agency and ensuring her top deputies are career officials who plan to stick through the change. There's nothing stopping a new administration replacing these transitional officials after it takes power.

Ms. Rossides's job is one of about 50 positions that fill out a color-coded chart kept close at hand by Acting Deputy Secretary Paul Schneider. Each week, he tallies how many positions are filled with career officials who can take the reins on or before Jan. 20. Career positions are marked in baby blue, political positions in beige. Empty positions are designated with crosshatches.

"I know precisely where we are," he says, noting that over the past six months, they have filled about 90% of the designated positions. A similar exercise is going on inside all the department's major agencies, such as TSA, and those handling immigration enforcement and border security. With most of his key positions filled, Mr. Schneider will soon assemble a transition team to manage the assembly of detailed briefing books, policies and procedures.

Once the key positions on his chart are staffed, Mr. Schneider said, he plans to hold a series of "summits" to discuss what is and isn't working and to pass along lessons learned to new managers. They will also conduct emergency exercises.

If the next administration designates new officials early enough, Mr. Chertoff said, his deputies might also be able to take their successors through an exercise "so they know what they are getting into."