Shane Harris
National Journal
December 18, 2008

WASHINGTON — The incoming Obama administration is considering changes to the White House’s role in homeland security policy that could dramatically enhance the influence of the president’s national security adviser, giving him a primary role in shaping disaster management and counterterrorism policy within the United States (see GSN, Dec. 3).

According to several former executive branch officials and experts outside government, some of whom have participated in transition proceedings with staffers for President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama, the question is whether to keep the White House’s Homeland Security Council intact or to merge it with the National Security Council, which handles foreign policy matters. The homeland council, which Bush created shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, coordinates domestic policy among a range of federal agencies, as well as state and local governments. But its staff is smaller and bureaucratically less influential than the NSC staff. If Obama merged the two, the portfolio of retired Army Gen. James Jones, the president-elect’s pick for national security adviser, would expand.

“I think they’re deciding that literally as we speak,” said Patricia McGinnis, the president and chief executive officer of the Council for Excellence in Government, a nonpartisan group that focuses on government management. She attended a meeting of the Transition Coordinating Council last week at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, as did representatives from the Obama team. Bush created the council in October, to assist with the transfer of power.

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According to sources at the meeting, the question of what to do with the HSC came up. National security adviser Stephen Hadley expressed what he called his personal view, not that of the administration, that he couldn’t imagine being in charge of homeland and national security affairs. White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten then noted a recent speech by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in which he cautioned against major reorganizations by observing that his department had spent five years learning how to coordinate its agencies during an emergency.

Several former Bush administration officials also said that experts are debating whether to keep or eliminate the homeland council. It’s not clear what move Obama favors. But before the election, two think tanks — the Center for American Progress and Third Way — released a homeland security transition study co-written by John Podesta, the head of Obama’s transition team, and Clark Kent Ervin, a former inspector general at the Homeland Security Department and a transition adviser. That report recommended that the NSC subsume the Homeland Security Council.

A spokesperson for the Obama transition didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some former Bush administration officials said that it makes sense to merge the two policy-making bodies. “The overlap between the work of HSC and NSC is very considerable,” said Michael Jackson, who served as the deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department and sat on deputies committees for both bodies. Jackson said that “threat analysis” from overseas and domestic sources “has to come together” and that the NSC has “the most organizational discipline and clarity of mission” of all White House policy groups.

Another former White House official said that if he were advising Obama, he would suggest redefining the NSC’s role. “I would look at it more as our nation’s security, beyond what is traditionally seen as the mission,” said Frank Cilluffo, who was a special assistant to the president for homeland security and was a principal adviser to Gov. Tom Ridge, Bush’s first homeland security adviser. Cilluffo and Jackson favor appointing two principal deputies — one each for domestic and foreign issues — both of whom would report directly to Jones.

President Bush’s former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, Frances Townsend, said that whatever structure Obama eventually chooses, the person in charge of those issues should have adequate access to both the national security adviser and the president. “Mission,” she said, “is more important than structure.” Hadley, said sources at the transition meeting, has the same view.

Meanwhile, homeland security transition efforts are moving into high gear. McGinnis said the Bush administration has identified a number of potential crisis scenarios that could confront the Obama team. Jackson, the former homeland security deputy secretary, said officials began making plans several months ago to bring their successors into crisis simulation exercises.

According to sources at the coordinating council meeting, the Bush administration is sharing with the Obama team its contingency planning for specific emergencies (see related GSN story, today). The Bush team is, in effect, handing off to Obama’s officials a playbook for handling potential crises.

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