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The New Administration's Plans

AMID THE GLOBAL economic crisis and U.S.-led wars abroad, the question of the nation’s domestic homeland security strategy fell far from the fore in last year’s historic presidential race. Matt Bennett of Third Way, a Washington, D.C., think tank, says the issue “played virtually no role at all” in the campaigns.

That, observers say, has afforded President-Elect Barack Obama some leeway in how he proceeds, but it also leaves ambiguity about what his administration will do with regard to security issues.

Michael Singer of the Center for American Progress, which along with Third Way issued recommendations for the first days of Obama’s administration, says he expects a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under Obama “that is much less ideological, that is much more focused on actual threats, that is focused on including the public better in a mission that previously had a lack of transparency and a lot of fear in it, unnecessarily.”

The most detailed portion of Obama’s homeland security plan to date deals with the U.S. leadership of the international spread of weapons of mass destruction. This policy directive is a reflection of Obama’s coauthorship of a 2007 law bolstering the State Department’s efforts to thwart black market trade in conventional weapons such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

Obama’s presidential plan sets the goal of securing all of the world’s vulnerable nuclear weapon storage sites within four years, calls for additional support of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and seeks to formalize the Proliferation Security Initiative, an international effort aimed at interdicting illegal weapons traffic.

In addition, a topic Obama did highlight during his campaign, investment in the nation’s critical infrastructure, incorporates security considerations. Obama’s platform calls for ensuring that security is “built into the design of new infrastructure so that our critical assets are protected from the start and more resilient to naturally occurring and deliberate threats through their life-cycle.”

Obama has also proposed an increased focus on cybersecurity, with establishment of a “national cyber advisor,” essentially a White House cyber czar who would report directly to the President. Currently, DHS houses the National Cyber Security Division, while in 2006 the Pentagon launched a new office, the Air Force Cyber Command, to handle national cyberdefense.

In addition to the new cyber-related White House position, Obama calls for a national research and development program to develop next-generation network and data security, and mandated standards for personal data security, including a requirement that companies publicly disclose all data breaches that expose personal information.

Security and terrorism experts have warned of the elevated threat of terrorist activity during the months surrounding the transition and Obama’s inauguration. They say concerns are warranted by recent history (See “DHS Seeks Seamless Transition,” Homeland Security, November 2008).

In their report, Bennett and Singer’s groups call for a senior-level tabletop exercise involving Obama and his senior appointees in January before Inauguration Day, while an earlier report by the National Association of Public Administration, commissioned by Congress and DHS, recommended a large-scale national level exercise, involving state officials and new federal leaders, to follow the change of administrations. “What is at risk, I think, is the ability of the new team to respond if something were to happen, because many jobs would be unfilled, and people would be new to their jobs and roles would be unclear,” Bennett said.

The policy recommendations in the Center for American Progress/Third Way report are few, but significant. The groups call for the immediate elimination of the White House’s Homeland Security Council (HSC), with its responsibilities absorbed by the National Security Council.

The groups note that the HSC was conceived by the Bush Administration in lieu of establishing DHS, when the administration opposed creation of the new cabinet level department, and argue that “In today’s globalized world and confronting a range of transnational and international concerns, it is difficult to envision where homeland security ends and national security begins.

The report does not advocate returning the Federal Emergency Management Agency to independent status, (it was absorbed into DHS in 2003), but the authors urge the new president to consider the issue for possible action after the first congressionally mandated Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, scheduled for completion later this year.