DHS "well on our way" to preparing for transition

In a discussion about surveillance cameras in New York City this morning, Diane Rehm devoted some air time to turnover and vacancies in the senior ranks of the Homeland Security Department. (See yesterday’s post.) DHS Spokesman Russ Knocke joined by phone, and said that, in April, the department was permitted to hire an additional 73 senior level positions. Officials are trying to “cross-train” them with existing employees, so that they’re ready to take over in January 2009, when a new administration comes in, he said. “We need high-caliber leaders in these spots, and we believe we’re well on our way to getting there.”

When I interviewed DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson back in May, he gave some more specifics. He acknowledged that it hadn’t been easy to keep good help. “We’ve had a significant turnover,” he said. “And that turnover has been below the top-level jobs as well.” (A number of those positions remain vacant, according to a new House Homeland Security Committee report.) But, Jackson said, preparations for the transition are well under way. “I would say we are well beyond the halfway point in what we have to get done.”

Also on the show today, former DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin said he was distressed by the high turnover and vacancies. “I think it’s troubling, really, that there are so many high-level positions at [DHS] that are open,” he said. Ervin also noted that, compared to other departments, the vacancies are “unusually high” at DHS. Why? Ervin cited a confluence of factors. “The department has the lowest morale” of any in government. It has “been underfunded since the beginning.” (Ervin noted that he’s a conservative Republican “who typically does not call for greater government spending.”) And Ervin pointed out that, in the wake of high-profile disasters like Hurricane Katrina, it hasn’t been easy to attract and retain a lot of talent at DHS. It won’t be any easier given that the Bush administration’s final days in office are upon us, he added.

Of the recent terrorist plot in London, Ervin emphasized that it was no coincidence the strikes came during a governmental transition, from former Prime Minister Tony Blair to new PM Gordon Brown. He also reminded listeners that terrorists blew up commuter trains in Madrid three days before the national elections in 2004. (I discussed this significance of this pattern, and what it means for DHS, in my story on the upcoming transition.

Knocke said DHS officials “are mindful of recent events in London,” and “the timeliness of attacks [in Madrid].” That echoed Jackson’s sentiments. The deputy secretary told me that the possibility of a terrorist attack timed to the U.S. transition in 2009 factors into officials planning now.