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What the New U.S. DHS Secretary Needs to Do

With the announced departure of Janet Napolitano as U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary, and speculation on potential successors being weighed by many, it’s time to look for what the next DHS Secretary needs to do. Here’s my wish list.


Better Communications

While leadership and management skills are essential to the Secretary’s job, so is the ability to communicate with the DHS team and the public at large. Television cameras, boom mics, teleconference bridge lines, handheld phones and more are unforgiving instrument, recording everything at any moment. Everything the DHS Secretary does and says about an issue will be parsed and examined thoroughly. Many people seem to forget that the first homeland security “threat” Secretary Napolitano had to communicate about was the H1N1 Flu outbreak. Before Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius took over HHS as its secretary, it was Napolitano who was the most senior federal official leading the charge for the newly inaugurated Obama Administration. Through White House Briefing Room appearances, TV news shots, radio interviews and more, she gave almost daily updates while also demonstrating the new and preferred method of covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough. While such demonstrations may seem silly, they demonstrate part of the role that the secretary has to play in what is a truly tough job.

Council of Foreign Relations

Secretary Janet Napolitano speaks to the Council of Foreign Relations, July 21, 2009.  U.S. Department of Homeland Security photo by Barry Bahler

As much as showing how to not spread more germs during a flu pandemic and talking about hurricane preparedness is important, so is what you say in describing prospective threats as well as after a major homeland event. Early in her tenure as DHS Secretary, Napolitano put herself squarely in the crosshairs when the department issued a highly controversial report alleging that returning Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans were susceptible to right-wing extremism. After standing by the report, which she said she had personally reviewed before it was issued, a DHS staffer was blamed for the infuriating language and the secretary, with the assistance of the White Hous,e went into full damage control. After a meeting with several leading veterans groups, the controversy died down, but months later the Secretary would ignite another firestorm with comments following the attempted bombing of an inbound Detroit airliner by the Underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab on Christmas Day 2009 when she said “the system worked.”

Yes, it is true that there have been abuses of conferences and workshops by the GSA, the IRS, the DoD and others in the past few years, but those aberrations are few in number and small in comparison to the value added that occurs when people from different backgrounds actually get to engage face to face and interact. Networks have value, and if they don’t get established and are not built upon, they can’t produce results. In these areas, I find the Napolitano era dramatically lacking.

Those three words ignited a firestorm of criticism in terms of passenger screening and intelligence gathering, and gave her critics and those of the department a gong to bang anytime something went wrong at DHS. Over time Napolitano regained her footing with her frequent PSAs for the “See Something, Say Something” campaign, but then seemed to undercut her own cyber security preparedness messages when she said she “had no use for email.”  Last time I checked, if you didn’t have an email address, you weren’t exactly the best spokesperson for prescribing remedies to the threats emanating from the cyber world. While email may indeed be a time sink, it’s still one of the largest media used to connect with the rest of the world.

These missteps can easily be chalked up to misstatements in the pressure-filled non-stop 24-7 news cycle, but for someone that was an experienced prosecutor, attorney general, and governor as well as first woman to lead the National Governors Association, they were all a surprise.


Restore Relationships & End the “Efficiency Initiative”

As important as communications may be in the top job of DHS, so are relationships. While the progress in information sharing in state and local and public and private sectors has improved at FEMA under Craig Fugate; Infrastructure Protection under Caitlin Durkovich; TSA under John Pistole; the Management Directorate under Rafael Borras; and CBP in cargo security efforts, all is not well on this front. In fact, DHS headquarters and in particular the front office and public affairs shop, have set relationships back with stakeholders across the board. My comment there can easily be labeled as sour grapes from a former political appointee from the previous administration in looking at what the current administration is doing in these areas, but talk to any of the public and private sector stakeholder groups and you will hear the same thing. Organizations and groups that have had relationships with the department, even in its infancy, are at a loss when it comes to engaging the department in just about anything. Such were the themes that were raised at a recent Congressional Hearing by the Subcommittee on Oversight and Management entitled, “Why Can’t DHS Better Communicate with the American People?”

Cargo Inspection

An Office of Field Operations (OFO) officer watches operations at the Newark, N.J. seaport as a sea container is loaded onto an awaiting truck. Progress in information sharing with U.S. Customs and Border Protection cargo security efforts has been a bright spot. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by James Tourtellotte

While you often don’t find that the Republican and Democratic leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives and on this Committee agree on much, both sides of the political aisle seem to feel the department has done poorly in these areas. Watch the hearing video or read the transcript and you will see how unified in frustration these parties truly are. To show how serious the front office of DHS took this particular Congressional inquiry, they sent Robert Jensen, DHS’ Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. Mr. Jensen is a nice guy, does his job well and serves his country and DHS honorably, but in the food chain of responsibility of these matters, he is not one of the people in charge. The department’s leadership sent him to answer to the Subcommittee because they know they don’t have a leg to stand on in these areas and he was just someone the front office saw as willing enough to send up to the subcommittee to be kicked around for the day. I felt badly for Jensen for his having been volunteered for target practice on firing squad day when the responsibility for these failures lie squarely at the feet of DHS’ front office. He didn’t deserve that, especially when these failures are the reaped harvest of some of Secretary Napolitano’s “Efficiency Review” initiatives.

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