Defense Media Network

The Next Homeland Security Secretary

2012 is one of those years in which politics will supersede all other things. The presidential and various congressional primaries, outside interest group ads, robocalls, candidate debates, and lots of talking heads on cable TV, radio, and the blogosphere will saturate us all. Every one of those people will be talking about change in one form or another.

With respect to homeland security, change will also be on the horizon for its leadership. While Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano’s health seems to be fine and she appears to be in decent political shape (there aren’t rampant calls for her resignation or her being driven from office), the odds are she will leave her post next January regardless of whether her boss, President Barack Obama, is re-elected or not.

As part of a traditional reshuffling that goes on during an administration, most Cabinet secretaries depart after four years in their assigned posts. Napolitano has not said anything publicly about whether she wants to continue in one of the world’s most thankless positions, but four years as Homeland Security secretary is a hell of a run for anyone.

Rumors have long circulated in Washington and elsewhere that the former governor of Arizona has her eyes set on the U.S. attorney general’s position should there be a second Obama administration. Other rumors have her sights set on the Supreme Court or even a

Secretary Janet Napolitano in Kentucky

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear respond to questions from the media following a tour of winter storm damage in Kentucky. Photo by Dianna Gee/FEMA

potential run for the White House in 2016. Regardless of the fact or fantasy of any of these rumors, it’s worth taking a look at the skills, qualities, and attributes of the next DHS secretary.

It’s not as if there is an easily accessible training camp or series of minor league franchise teams from which a DHS secretary can be easily called up to and put in rotation with the other big league Cabinet members. To date, we’ve had two state governors and a federal judge serve in the position. Each of the three individuals who have served as DHS secretary brought unique traits and skills to the position, as well as a cadre of personnel – either from their home states or former positions – with whom they had worked.

On the eve of a new administration in 2008, I thought it was fairly easy to assemble a short list of persons who could be the next DHS secretary. Names such as Napolitano, former U.S. Coast Guard commandant Thad W. Allen, former Los Angeles police chief and NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, and current NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly were on that list, as well as Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif.

I would still put these same names on a prospective list of nominees for the position beginning in 2013, but I’ll add a few others to the list as well. One of those would be Rand Beers, who currently serves as DHS’s under secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate.

Probably more than any other senior leader at DHS, Beers has been the closest adviser to Napolitano, having worked with her from the beginning of the Bush to Obama transition process in late 2008 up to the present day. As the point person with responsibilities for cybersecurity, critical infrastructure, and a whole lot more, Beers has been Napolitano’s go-to guy for just about every homeland issue, policy, and program. While he does not have the overtly recognizable name and face that others have, his experience and background easily lend themselves to the position.

Secretary Michael Chertoff

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff speaking to Coast Guard members and press at a demonstration by the Coast Guard’s Deployable Operations Group. DHS Photo (Transport Security Administration)

You could also add the name of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Administrator John Pistole for the big chair at DHS as well, but he would probably be better suited for the FBI director position given his record and experience at the Bureau. Despite the seemingly regular cringe-worthy stories that come out of TSA screeners patting down someone in a way the public does not like, as well as the constant name-calling and hand-wringing of congressional members and staff, Pistole’s TSA tenure has been remarkably quiet.

Compared to the confirmation issues that the Obama administration had to find someone to take the TSA administrator position, a quiet tenure at TSA may be this administration’s greatest blessing at DHS.

Given his current success at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Craig Fugate‘s name is another one that should be bounced around. Given his deep roots in emergency management, the thought of having to deal with even more contentious issues like border security, immigration policy, and things far more complicated than debris removal, grant funds, and disaster declarations may have him running for the nearest disaster shelter to hide from consideration.

What will be telling is how over the next several months Obama, and those who are looking to take his job, as well as other current and potential congressional members, will talk about changing the position of DHS secretary. While there does not seem to be any

Secretary Tom Ridge in Floroda

DHS Secretary Tom Ridge speaks to the media concerning the recovery from Hurricane Charley outside the local Disaster Recovery Center, Ft. Myers, Fla., 2004 FEMA Photo/Mark Wolfe

move afoot to do away with the department, after nearly a decade or so in operation it is not unreasonable to talk about what we want and don’t want in the department’s leadership.

Tom Ridge was by far the best communicator and most inspirational of the three DHS secretaries. Michael Chertoff was the most strategic and tactical of its leaders. As for Napolitano … well, I really don’t know what to say about her mark on the department. Despite the speech-giving and public pronouncements that go with a visible Cabinet position, Napolitano has been the most guarded and isolated of the three DHS secretaries I’ve observed since the department came into being in 2003.

If you talk with anyone who has worked with her (either current/former political appointees, career Senior Executive Service, or regular general service employees), Napolitano remains surrounded by much of the same crowd from Arizona that she brought with her to Washington. While that type of loyalty is certainly admirable, it is also disappointing that her inner circle has not been opened to include more persons beyond the current group.

The secretary’s position should not be an island unto itself that is walled off from different parties that can give it good as well as bad news. Over time Ridge and Chertoff evolved their inner circles to become broader assemblies, and as a result their leadership and influence grew in the department.

I’d say the jury remains out on Napolitano’s tenure, but if she does remain, she must become a leader who can listen and engage with far more diverse parties than she currently has engaged. This quality, regardless of who leads the department, is almost, if not more, important than having someone who can deliver an effective speech and make announcements du jour. These are qualities we need to be looking for over the next few months, because if you’re going to succeed in a next-to-impossible job, hearing what others are saying beyond your inner circle can make a big difference in the way the homeland is served on its good days and its bad.


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

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-47853">

    Thas Allen should be given heavy consideration. His work with the BP Oil spill and other natural disasters has showed his ability to bring people and resources together at a moments notice. One of his legacies is the Coast Guard’s Deployable Operations Group.