Resignations leave void in top Homeland Security management ranks

As a flood of senior managers prepare to leave the Homeland Security Department, some outside observers worry the department will experience a management void that could hurt several critical homeland security efforts.

As the Bush administration settles into its second term, DHS is bracing for the departure of key managers who came on board to start the department. Within the next couple of months, at least six senior managers will resign, each citing individual reasons.

The resignation of Secretary Tom Ridge and Deputy Secretary James Loy was widely publicized. But other resignations include Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security; Frank Libutti, undersecretary for information analysis and infrastructure protection; Robert Liscouski, assistant secretary for infrastructure protection; and C. Suzanne Mencer, executive director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness.

Additionally, Patrick Hughes, assistant secretary for information analysis, is rumored to be planning to leave as well.

"That's a pretty good chunk of folks," said Michael Wermuth, senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp. "At a time when that organization is struggling, it gives one pause."

The exodus of managers is not surprising when an administration begins a new term. But Wermuth and others note that DHS is not yet officially two years old, which raises the risk that institutional knowledge will be lost as managers who helped start programs and policies depart.

"Every person going out can't be expected to explain in excruciating detail to their replacement how some [work] happened," Wermuth said.

The resignations also raise concerns that some critical projects will be further delayed, said P.J. Crowley, senior fellow and director of national defense and homeland security at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

"In an established organization, leadership changeovers are usually constructive because you bring new and fresh perspectives to the job," he said. "In this particular case, because we haven't completed initial capabilities, I think this is more of a problem. This freezes us where we are until the new people get on board."

Crowley said he is particularly concerned that management turmoil will further delay the creation of the National Plan for Critical Infrastructure and Key Resources Protection. Under a presidential directive, DHS was supposed to issue the plan by December 2004. The department's directorate of information analysis and infrastructure protection is responsible for it. However, Libutti and Liscouski-and possibly Hughes-are leaving the directorate.

President Bush has already nominated replacements for Ridge and Loy. Federal judge Michael Chertoff got the nod to be secretary, while Michael Jackson, former deputy secretary at the Transportation Department, was nominated to the DHS deputy secretary slot.

DHS spokeswoman Kathleen Montgomery said the department will weather the transition to new management.

"The ones who are leaving are part of a larger leadership team that is bigger than any one person," she said, adding that some managers, such as Loy and Hutchinson, have agreed to stay on until March 1 in order to help with the transition and transfer institutional knowledge.

Wermuth and Crowley both agreed that the department could benefit in the long run from new managers who have fresh perspectives and energy.

Wermuth said the risk of delaying efforts or missing deadlines within DHS is probably less than at other agencies facing similar management turnover, given that homeland security is a national priority.

Crowley said that it would have been better if resignations at DHS were staggered over the next year. He worried that it will take Chertoff months to get up to speed.

"Chertoff is basically going to spend all of 2005 putting his leadership team in place," Crowley said. "Unfortunately, that means whatever momentum exists in DHS is probably going to stall for the short term."

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