Regardless of which political party takes over the White House Jan. 20, the new administration will have to move quickly to meet several looming deadlines in 2009 related to critical homeland security programs.
Comment on this article in The Forum.In addition, lawmakers and administration officials say the Homeland Security Department must be ready and vigilant for the upcoming presidential transition, especially since similar events in other countries have been marred by terrorist attacks.
Specifically, deadlines will quickly materialize next year for the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, the US-VISIT foreigner tracking system, the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program and the so-called Real ID law.
Some of the deadlines have been imposed by Congress, while others were put in place under the current DHS leadership team.
"Given the fact that DHS has never experienced a presidential transition, it is absolutely imperative that the department has adequate staffing, planning and leadership in place to carry out its mission," said House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., whose panel has been investigating the department's readiness for transition.
A department spokeswoman responded that the programs will be handed off to a new administration in good shape.
"We have a very aggressive strategy for the transition to ensure not only continuity of government but to ensure that the programs we have put in place, including those that are congressional mandates, will move forward," she said.
On June 1, the department must be ready to enforce a new Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative rule affecting how U.S. citizens and foreign travelers enter the United States at land crossings and seaports.
Most U.S. citizens will be required to present machine-readable passports or smaller, passport-like cards with radio frequency identification chips. Citizens of some jurisdictions, such as Washington state, will be allowed to present new driver's licenses with the chips.
The main challenges confronting the department are ensuring it has sufficient personnel and card-reading technology in place at border checkpoints. Otherwise, lawmakers and state officials fear there could be major disruptions in tourism and commerce.
Also in June, Homeland Security must ensure that a system is in place to take the fingerprints of foreigners leaving the United States through airports in order to verify who is leaving the country.
If that requirement is not met, the department will be prohibited from allowing more countries to join a program under which their citizens can travel to the United States without visas. The tourism and travel industry has lobbied heavily in favor of the program.
But officials said a new complication could be on the horizon because appropriators are considering requiring the department to conduct test programs to compare whether the government or the airlines should do the fingerprint collection.
The tests will take time to do. "You've got these Byzantine levels of mandates that are coming out," said Chris Battle -- who helped set up Homeland Security and worked there before becoming a partner at the Adfero Group.
Thompson also expressed concern that the department's border security programs rely too heavily on contractors. He said the "only way to assure these programs stay up and running is for the department to adopt a concrete and comprehensive border security strategy to carry over into the next administration."
By April, the department must ensure that all workers who have access to secure areas of U.S. seaports, including truckers, are enrolled in the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, under which they are given new secure badges with biometric identifiers.
The troubled program has experienced a series of setbacks, most recently when card-producing machines broke down.
By December 2009, the department must determine if states should be granted additional time to come into compliance with the controversial Real ID law.
Leading up to that deadline, the department must help states come into compliance with more than a dozen technical and policy requirements under the law.
Battle noted that what happens with Real ID is, to some degree, outside the department's control, as some states have passed laws prohibiting their participation in the program.
On yet another front, Homeland Security officials have said they will develop legal and policy plans in 2009 for giving state and local law enforcement agencies access to satellite imagery.
While the 2009 deadlines for these program will have to be faced regardless of whether Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., or Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is elected president, Homeland Security's ability to meet these deadlines will also be shaped by next year's political climate and congressional funding levels, officials acknowledged.
"If the decision-making process is slow or the decisions aren't made, that's when deadlines are missed," said Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security's first undersecretary for border and transportation security, who is now a lobbyist and homeland security consultant.