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The Acting, Acting, Idling DHS

 

On the week we remember the 12th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is now being led by an “Acting, Acting Secretary.” If that sounds unusual, if not unprecedented, it is. With the departure of Janet Napolitano this past week for her new position as Chancellor of the University of California system, there is no confirmed DHS deputy secretary to step into her position. We presently have Rand Beers serving as the Acting Deputy Secretary of DHS, and since he’s the most senior person in the department’s leadership chain that makes him the Acting, Acting Secretary.

It is utterly inexcusable to me and to many of my former homeland security colleagues that the Obama Administration has failed to put forward a qualified nominee in a timely manner, especially with the 9/11 anniversary at hand.

For those who may have never heard of Rand Beers, he’s a smart, accomplished and very experienced hand in national security matters. His solid record of service and performance speaks for itself. It’s one of the reasons he was for all intents and purposes the real deputy secretary during Napolitano’s tenure in office. She took no major trip or program action, issued a policy directive or did anything of DHS consequence without his close involvement or proximity to it. Under his acting stewardship, the department will be well served in its day-to-day operations, even as the number one seat sits officially vacant. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing about the Obama White House’s stewardship on these matters.

Rand Beers

Rand Beers, seated at table, third from left, is now the Acting, Acting Secretary of DHS in the wake of Janet Napolitano’s departure. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Barry Bahler

It is utterly inexcusable to me and to many of my former homeland security colleagues that the Obama Administration has failed to put forward a qualified nominee in a timely manner, especially with the 9/11 anniversary at hand. Their inability to do so inspires even less confidence in their leadership, especially at a time when their judgment and leadership in national security matters is increasingly seen domestically and internationally as a waffling windsock joke.

This failure, though, goes beyond the secretary’s empty chair.  It goes to the deputy secretary position as well.  While USCISAlejandro Mayorkas has been nominated for the department’s number two position, and put forward a strong performance at his late July confirmation hearing, his approval by the U.S. Senate is far from assured, given the current investigation of which he is a part. But the failure of DHS stewardship by the Obama Administration extends far further down the leadership line.

Depending on whose count you use, there are anywhere between 12-15 top spots open at DHS. If you go to DHS’ own website and take a look at their leadership page (which is often out of date), you can see for yourself the number of (acting) spots that are open. I guess when your departures are as frequent as they are at DHS, it’s understandable that the web page is inaccurate.

It would be easy – and accurate – for the White House to point its finger at the Congress and the broken confirmation process as a reason for not getting persons into place in these top spots.

What is not understandable or even excusable is the inability of Office of White House Personnel to fill leadership spots that deserve and require filling. At some point when an election is over, the victor has to govern, and in this case, the campaigns have been long over and governing seems to be just an (acting) thing that they’ll get to at some point.

It would be easy – and accurate – for the White House to point its finger at the Congress and the broken confirmation process as a reason for not getting persons into place in these top spots. Sadly, that is, more often than not, a fair criticism when nominations are often held hostage by a particular senator that may not like a nominee’s prior writing of or lack of response to a letter the senator sent way back when, or even his or her outfit. But not every one of the open DHS leadership positions is a Senate-confirmed spot. Furthermore, for a confirmation process to even begin, you have to have people willing to do the job, and this White House can’t seem to produce them.

As any coach or unit leader will tell you, good teams are only as good and as strong as their bench strength, and it’s painfully obvious that DHS has become dangerously anemic this year.

Capitol Building

The finger-pointing between the White House and Congress over who is responsible for the lack of filled leadership positions in DHS has not helped to fill open leadership positions within the department. FEMA photo by Bill Koplitz

Like Rand Beers, many of the persons serving in (acting) positions are experienced and qualified and will do a great job at managing the day-to-day functions of the position, but their acting can only go so far. New programs and policies, as well as procurements and other daily business functions, remain on perpetual hold because as (acting) leaders they are perpetually told to say, “We’re waiting till the new person arrives…”

These types of actions, or rather the lack of actions, only reinforce the perpetual era of uncertainty that has become the hallmark of the current administration. You’re never quite sure what they are up to, because decisions don’t get made since the “new person” is not in place. If that new person doesn’t arrive in a timely manner, or in the case of some of these open positions, never arrives at all, you aren’t leading – you’re idling in place. Last time I checked, idling never got you anywhere.

There is nothing about homeland security that should be idling, especially in terms of leading it. Up and down the line, you have lots of people at DHS doing their jobs, dangerous and not dangerous, to keep the country safe from threats and hazards that are foreign, domestic, natural and accidental. Their names are often unknown, and they don’t often find themselves subject to the photo ops that leaders often take part in. Those people serving in those largely anonymous roles deserve to have leaders in place that can do the job, and if there’s no one there to do the job, the job doesn’t get done.  That’s unacceptable by any measure.

On this year’s hallowed anniversary date, we certainly have a good person “minding the store,” but the White House is clearly failing DHS and the American public when it cannot produce the bench strength in critical roster spots needed to move the department forward rather than idle in place.

As we all know, a 9/11 type of event doesn’t always occur on the actual anniversary date. It can occur at anytime, anywhere, but it is on these almost reverent dates and occasions that we do look to gauge how far we’ve come and where we’re going.

On this year’s hallowed anniversary date, we certainly have a good person “minding the store,” but the White House is clearly failing DHS and the American public when it cannot produce the bench strength in critical roster spots needed to move the department forward rather than idle in place.

That’s no place to be a dozen years after “that day.”

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...