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DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano Stays Put

With President Barack Obama’s second term beginning, the White House has finally answered the question much of the homeland security community had been wondering about – “Will she stay or will she go?” The “she” in this case is Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and that answer is a resounding, “She’s staying put.” Despite the recent high-profile departures in the president’s national security team at the State Department, the Pentagon and even the CIA, a department long known for almost constant turnover is surprisingly the most stable and drama-free.

In fact, Janet Napolitano is now the longest-tenured secretary that DHS has ever possessed. Given the fact that DHS has only had three secretaries in its nearly ten years of operation, that may not seem overly impressive, but in fact it is. DHS and its Catch-22 mission of being “damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t” is a meat grinder that chews on its personnel physically and mentally, as well as professionally and personally. In its senior leadership roles that grind is especially taxing, and comes at enormous cost professionally and personally as you literally are a Blackberry notice/email/breaking news alert of your day going from civil to hellacious courtesy of Mother Nature, an accident or someone up to something really, really bad.

By denoting the pressures she has, I am not trying to discount the personal and professional pressures that DHS’ law enforcement, Coast Guard, and other emergency management personnel face regularly, but in a top leadership position, all eyes, and most certainly the cameras and microphones, are fixed squarely on you: and they don’t move from that point either. No one feels that glare more than the DHS secretary.

Obama and Napolitano

Napolitano meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. DHS photo by Pete Souza

Having been fortunate to observe the department’s first two secretaries, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, in some of the department’s tough early days, I could see how both of them handled the pressures of their responsibilities in various ways. While I’ve not had a similar experience in closely observing Napolitano as I did her predecessors, I think I can say for sure that once she leaves office some day in the future, she’s going to feel a whole lot less pressure than she does today. If you see either Ridge or Chertoff today, while both may be busy with their respective professional pursuits, neither has the worries they once did when they had to be the person to tell the president what was happening in any number of situations.

For Napolitano, her life of the past four years will continue to be one that is ruled by 24/7, 365 watches, and threat assessments and responses for everything from hurricanes, flu outbreaks, and fire seasons to homegrown and far off terror threats. That type of lifestyle is hard enough on the people who conduct those watches and threat assessments on a regular basis, let alone the person who has to answer for all of them. For all of the public recognition, honors and the so-called perks of the job (e.g. personal aircraft, car and driver, 24/7 security detail, etc.) you have to remember that there is no such thing as a “day off.”

Napolitano and pilot

Napolitano, at the Eagle Horizon National Level Exercise, speaks with a pilot from Customs and Border Protection. DHS photo by Barry Bahler

Her critics, most notably Matt Drudge of the “Drudge Report,” who calls her “Big Sis,” are always quick to point out any misstep or screw-up. Undoubtedly she is the first to get the blame for something that has gone awry under the department’s watch and will probably be the last to get any of the credit for when something goes right (or something bad doesn’t happen). That comes with the job and no doubt Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff told her just that when she was tapped to take the secretary’s Office.

I can’t say I’ve agreed with everything she’s done at DHS. There are a number of things I would like to see her do differently, including some personnel changes that immediately serve her. In fact, there are times I wish she had been a whole lot more proactive in standing up to the Department’s critics – most notably members of Congress who seem to use DHS and its people and mission as a personal rag doll to whack at leisure. I also had hoped that the Obama White House would empower her to take a more forceful and strategic role in the issue of immigration reform in its first term. This is an issue that she is uniquely qualified to lead, given her standing as a border state resident, as a prosecutor, as a governor and as an operating agent responsible for these functions. If the White House is smart, they will let her be their champion unless they want to pay lip service to the issue as they have the previous four years.

Regardless, Janet Napolitano is the homeland sentry the president has tapped to continue, and she has said “yes” at continuing to keep watch. I would not have blamed her in the least if she had decided to say after the November elections, “You know Mr. President … I’ve had enough.” She serves in one of the cruelest and most grueling of jobs, and like her predecessors, I am grateful for her service. While she’s never met my family and probably hasn’t met yours either, she has a role in keeping them and others in the country safe, and that is something we all should appreciate and respect.


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