Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has emerged as President-elect Obama's top pick to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, ABC News has learned.
If Obama nominates her and the U.S. Senate confirms the nomination, the border-state governor will be the first female homeland security secretary.
Napolitano, a former U.S. attorney and Arizona attorney general, had also been mentioned as a candidate for U.S. attorney general. But earlier this week Washington attorney Eric Holder became the top contender for that post.
Though the President-elect's transition team has been tight-lipped on the official status of potential cabinet appointments, Obama's former rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addressed the possibility that the governor of his home state could join the new administration.
Noting that he called to congratulate Napolitano on her move to the top of the list to lead DHS, McCain said in a statement that her experience "warrants her rapid confirmation by the Senate and I hope she is quickly confirmed." He also pledged to work with her through the nomination process.
Of course, in addition to the merits of her selection, McCain is eager to not have a difficult re-election fight in 2010. A few days ago, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee filed paperwork to prepare for that run, and popular governor Napolitano was a possible opponent. Her move to DHS would more easily pave the way to another term for the former prisoner of war.
When Obama takes the oath of office in January, security will be high in the nation's capital as hundreds of thousands come to witness history in the making. Along with the historic moment, the Department of Homeland Security will undergo its first transfer of power since it was formed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
The department's sixth anniversary falls a few days after the new administration takes control. Whoever's selected to head the young agency gets to leave his or her mark as the agency continues to define its mission of guarding the United States against terrorist attacks, securing the border, enforcing customs and immigration laws and responding to disaster.
But the immediate focus will be on the leadership needs at DHS. The department is made up of 22 separate agencies and 218,000 employees. Although fewer than 200 political appointees serve there, about 80 of those officials are in key management positions. The department evolved from the Office of Homeland Security, which was headed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
DHS has been preparing for the transition for some time by placing career officials and deputies in key slots and adding deputy positions to assist with the changes. At a news conference the day after the election, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, "We have prepared, first of all, in terms of our internal processes, succession plans that make sure there are ... career people who are experienced who are in place in the No. 2 or No. 3 positions in all of our offices."
While plans on paper might be in place, Matthew Rojansky, executive director of the bipartisan Partnership for a Secure America, told ABC News, "It's a new department; it's only been around for one administration.
"It's hugely top heavy ... 150 vacancies in the executive staff is a problem."
In 2007, Chertoff established an Administration Transition Task Force to deal with the change of presidential administrations. After the election, he said, "We are in the process of planning for the kinds of emergencies that might most likely beset the new administration after Jan. 20," which is Inauguration Day.
"Briefing books will be completed in the next few days," Chertoff said. "And it's my hope ... that the new folks coming into the leadership positions will sit with us either late this year or early next year to go through some kind of tabletop instructional course on incident management so that if something were to happen in the month or two after the new president gets on board, they would be as prepared as the reasonably can be, based on training."
Among the concerns for senior officials during the transition is an elevated risk of terrorist attack. Since late summer, the government has been operating in a period of heightened alert. Chertoff said after the election that there is no credible intelligence of an imminent threat to the United States, but that DHS officials and analysts continue to review intelligence reports and review potential threats.
"We've actually kind of looked at this as a period of heightened alert where we have put into effect some additional measures to just make sure we're really scrubbing all the intelligence," he said. "We are looking very carefully at anything that might be a vulnerability. ... This is about making sure that we are extra focused during a period of change, which is, naturally, one in which sometimes there is an element of distraction."
Although there is no credible intelligence at this time, analysts have noted that the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing occurred in the first few months of new administrations. Also, the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 2007 car bomb plots in the United Kingdom took place during times of transition. In recent days, there have also been renewed terrorism concerns about potential plots in the United Kingdom and renewed claims by individuals with links to al Qaeda that terrorist cells are planning new attacks against the United States.
"It's not inconceivable that there are some major plots out there that come to light in the transition," Rojansky of the Partnership for a Secure America said.
Aside from immediate concerns about attacks, DHS will also be dealing with immigration and border security.
As the governor of a border state, Napolitano touts her actions as the first governor to ask for the National Guard to be posted at the U.S-Mexico border. She also called for federal funding to cover the move.
While the issue was barely discussed during the presidential campaign, the Obama camp has taken a position that, according to the campaign's Web site, supports "a system that requires undocumented immigrants who are in good standing to pay a fine, learn English, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens."
Aside from immigration as a leading policy issue, the next secretary will also have to deal with information-sharing as a continuing challenge, as the agency continues to evolve and build a more robust response to natural disasters such as hurricanes.
During his campaign, Obama noted that securing nuclear weapons and bio-security issues topped his domestic security agenda. Both issues will be a challenge for the agency, as a recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that the effectiveness of nuclear-detection systems has been exaggerated by DHS officials working on the issue.
With economic uncertainty ahead, funding of such expensive systems could be an issue. "The response to threats has been to throw money at the problem and look for a technological advantage. ... I don't think they will have the type of money that they have," Rojansky said.
The effectiveness of bio-security programs also remains unclear. DHS is designing new detection system under its bio-watch program. Its bio-surveillance system was compromised in 2007 when a man infected with a virulent form of tuberculosis gained entry into the United States, despite his being on a watch list.