With the nation's intelligence analysts warning that a resurgent Al Qaeda could attempt another strike in the United States, homeland-security officials are refocusing on some of the nation's most apparent vulnerabilities.
At the top of the list is the January 2009 transition to a new administration – when a changing of the guard may leave the country less able to respond quickly and decisively to an attack.
The issue has gained urgency with last month's attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow, which occurred just days after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown assumed power.
Homeland-security and intelligence analysts in the US are analyzing the factors that have allowed Al Qaeda, characterized as "on the run" by President Bush last year, to recover enough to allow it to continue to be a serious threat to the next administration.
"Our preoccupation with Iraq provided Al Qaeda with breathing space at probably what was the most critical time for them to enable them to reconstitute themselves," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "The other question boils down to our relationship with Pakistan: Al Qaeda would not have been able to revive had they not had the safe haven that they seem to enjoy in these tribal areas of Pakistan." [Editor's note: The original version misstated Mr. Hoffman's institutional affiliation.]
To cope with a reconstituted threat, homeland-security and intelligence officials are working to ensure an experienced set of civil servants are at the helm of the Department of Homeland Security's 30 agencies as well as in US intelligence agencies on Jan. 20, 2009. The goal is to ensure that the handoff of power to a new administration is as smooth as possible.
"Whoever is elected president in 2008, whether it's a Republican or a Democrat, will have to ensure that they're in close coordination with the existing administration on counterterrorism," says Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
DHS officials are already putting plans in place to develop "as seamless a transition as possible," according to Russ Knocke, a spokesman for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. DHS has developed secession plans for each of its 30 agencies and departments. They include an analysis of the current hierarchy in each group and how it functions day to day.
For example, if a top manager is a presidential appointee who is expected to leave, as in the case of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), DHS officials have already the identified which top career position would then be tapped for an official to be in charge during the transition. "We know who is the No. 2, what are their duties. [It's] the same for No. 3, No. 4, and even in some cases further down the ladder," Mr. Knocke says.
Department officials are also now concentrating on ensuring that they have the right people to fill those Nos. 2 and 3 slots. They'd like experienced, career civil-service personnel in place at each agency before the transition.
That is proving to be a challenge. DHS has succeeded in putting in place 14 top career officials, which accounts for almost half of the 30 agencies. But the department, which has a total of 575 senior leadership positions, currently has 135 total top vacancies. According to Knocke, 70 percent of them are in the hiring process, simply waiting for a security clearance. Still, critics note that uncertainty created by such a large number of unfilled slots could add to the nation's vulnerability.
"That presents a particular problem for us right now, and it will in January 2009 because there will be nobody there to talk to when the transition takes place," says Professor Greenberger.
In some agencies, such as the Coast Guard, which have well established professional employees and career paths, setting up transition plans has gone fairly smoothly. In others, like FEMA, which has been highly politicized and lost most of its career leadership in the past eight years, it's more of a challenge, say experts. And that points to a larger set of strategic issues – whether the US needs to build a homeland-security discipline similar to that of the Foreign Service or the military with its War College.
"It begs the question of how do we build out a homeland-security career service?" says Frank Cilluffo, director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute. "We need to start investing in people education ... and leadership to build a stronger discipline."
But Knocke of DHS defends the department's work and points to FEMA as the perfect example of how the department is attempting to prepare for the transition and at the same time improve cooperation. For example, Secretary Chertoff has recently appointed the Coast Guard's retired Vice Adm. Harvey Johnson to be the No. 2 person at FEMA.
"That's a tremendous value add, not only for FEMA, because he understands the Coast Guard culture ... and brings that expertise to FEMA," says Knocke. "But it's also a benefit for the Coast Guard because they have one of their own who's working in the chief operating officer slot in FEMA."
But even Knocke admits that DHS still has a long way to go to be prepared for a revived Al Qaeda threat. "There are a number of things that are well under way, but I will be the first to tell you that we have a distance to go," he says.