And until either Barack Obama or John McCain takes the White House, no one knows whether homeland security and concerns about a domestic attack will be a priority or will fall by the wayside in the face of other issues.
"We don't know an attack is inevitable, but we know the risk is high," said Matt Bennett, vice president of Third Way, a politically moderate think tank. "And we know if the response is not smooth, we risk tremendous damage to the U.S. in every possible respect, from increased loss of life to lack of faith in leadership of the new president."
Bennett is part of a group of policy experts that has spent the last 10 months researching the possible scenarios of a terror attack in the first year of a new presidency.
The Homeland Security Presidential Transition Initiative, a joint project of Third Way and the Center for American Progress, plans to publish a security manual that will be distributed to the candidates before Nov. 4.
The manual draws from discussions with a range of security experts, including John Podesta, President Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, and Jamie Gorelick, deputy attorney general under Clinton. These experts believe that, once in office, the new American president must quickly devise an extensive preparedness plan: establish a governmental chain of command, communicate with the public and coordinate mobilization efforts.
Based on the content of each candidate's Web site, Obama and McCain have preliminarily pinpointed their top post-election homeland security priorities. Both men outline plans that include supporting first responders, improving border security and protecting infrastructure.
"The question is: To what extent are the campaigns already planning for the transition and planning their leadership teams?" said P.J. Crowley, senior fellow at liberal think tank Center for American Progress. "On the one hand, it sounds presumptuous, but on the other hand, it's really important."
The experts have been working with history as their guide, claiming terrorists are inclined to strike during new leaders' first terms. This happened in 2001 with 9/11, less than eight months after President George W. Bush took office; Clinton was inaugurated a mere month before the bombing of the World Trade Center garage in 1993; George H.W. Bush was only weeks away from his inauguration when the attack on Pan Am flight 103 happened in 1988; and three days after Great Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown took office in 2007, two terrorists loaded a Jeep with propane canisters and drove it into Glasgow International Airport.
So, what would be the strategy behind a first-term strike?
In its first year, an administration is still in transition and vulnerable to disruptions. The new president is responsible for nominating a slew of candidates for crucial positions, including members of his cabinet, such as the secretary and undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Without these appointments, lines of authority in a conflict would be unclear and the disorganization could hamstring an administration trying to manage a crisis.
"Really the question is: How can you accelerate this process?" Crowley said. "How can the next president and his administration get its arms around this thing called homeland security as rapidly and effectively as possible?"
Crowley and his colleague at the center, Senior Policy Adviser Michael Signer, are adamant that the next president should retool the way security threats in the United States are assessed.
In the experts' opinions, the Bush administration has bungled efforts to communicate with the public on homeland security, from recommendations to stock up on duct tape to the confusing color-coded threat system. The Department of Homeland Security's credibility is waning, they say, and people are tired of messages from the government that raise fears but don't equip them in the event of an attack.
Signer suggests the next president should strongly encourage families to formulate their own preparedness plans and involve the public in more long-range strategies like the Freedom from Fear mental health initiative.
Going beyond the domestic framework, Stewart Verdery, a former assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security, contributed advice on international relations to the bipartisan preparedness project. Verdery's past experience with Homeland Security convinced him that having a good transition plan "would be integral to a good start next year."
"Homeland security is 50/50," said Verdery, a partner with consultancy Monument Policy Group. "It's here, but it's also overseas with information sharing, as well as on the law enforcement side."
In spite of some experts' eager contribution to the initiative, concerns about a first-term terrorist attack are not shared by everyone in the nation's capital.
James Carafano, senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, agrees the candidates should already be thinking about their leadership teams and that the White House's readiness for an attack is crucial, but he dismisses the idea of "synchronized" attack timing by terrorists.
"It's not as if the terrorists are sitting there with some diabolical master plan," Carafano said. "They've been trying to get here, and failed, and they're going to keep trying to get here. But there is not a synchronized date."
Still, other security experts say the next president should be on alert in the first 100 days of a new administration.
"I think it's important for people to understand that we don't necessarily believe anything's going to happen," Crowley said. "But it is important for the new president to come in with this sense of urgency that the more prepared you are to deal with this situation, the better."
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