The Jockeying Begins for New DHS Chief

Seconds after Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano announced her decision to leave the government to accept the job as president of the University of California system this morning, speculation over her replacement began.

Napolitano will remain a Fed until sometime in September, which means there’ll be some high-stakes beltway maneuvering over the next several weeks as President Obama weighs who to nominate to lead the sprawling 240,000-person agency.

But the fact that Congress is about two weeks away from a month-long vacation adds a wrinkle to the equation, as does the empty desk sitting right next to Napolitano’s office, as the job of DHS Deputy Secretary is also open and is currently being filled by an “acting” position.

The nominee for that job, Citizenship and Immigration Services head Alejandro Mayorkas, has yet to be considered by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“You could end up with a very big leadership vacuum here at a really critical time” said Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations. Given the enormity of the immigration bill still being debated in Congress, now would be the worst possible moment for the two top slots at the agency to sit vacant.

Some of the names that have been tossed out today to lead DHS include former Representative Jane Harmon and Senator Joe Lieberman, Sen. Susan Collins, acting DHS Deputy Secretary Rand Beers, former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, New York police chief Ray Kelly, and former New York and Los Angeles police Chief Bill Bratton.

Starting from inside the agency, Beers has been a Napolitano adviser since 2009, and until May was the Under Secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD). He was made the acting Deputy Secretary on May 2.

In a statement at the time of Beers’ appointment, Napolitano praised his work on cyber issues, calling him “one of my most trusted advisers, providing invaluable counsel and advice on a wide spectrum of homeland security issues, from counterterrorism efforts to cybersecurity.”

Beers has also already gone through the Congressional confirmation process when we was confirmed by the Senate in 2009 for the undersecretary position. He was also tapped to lead President Obama’s DHS agency review team during the 2008 presidential transition.

Former Democratic Representative Jane Harman, who resigned from Congress in early 2011 and now serves as the director, president and CEO of The Woodrow Wilson Center, is also an early favorite. Harmon served on the Armed Services, Intelligence, and Homeland Security committees during her years on the Hill.

One former Hill staffer who worked with Harmon praised her work on the Hill, saying that she “really knew the history not only on homeland security issues but also on the intelligence side.”

While that knowledge would be crucial for tackling the complex job of overseeing the interconnected missions wrapped up under the homeland security umbrella, “the most important qualification for a new DHS secretary is going to be credibility on the enforcement front,” CFR’s Alden cautioned.

“Because enforcement is such a challenge with the Republicans in Congress, I think that argues for someone with a law enforcement background as opposed to someone with a political background,” he said on Friday.

Under that calculus, Ray Kelly, Bill Bratton, and Thad Allen — who oversaw relief operations during Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon cleanup operation in the Gulf of Mexico, could lead the list of potential nominees.

But the job is more than just enforcement.

“The department continues to be quite fragmented,” Alden said. “The policy planning function is weak, so I don’t think Napolitano did a lot to further the strategic coherence in the department.”

Part of this is due to the agency’s youth — it’s only 10 years old — and part of it is because it is forced to oversee multiple older bureaucratic cultures that have long had their own ways of doing things.

“You haven’t yet developed a really effective professional bureaucracy in DHS” according to Alden, “partly because it is a new agency you have a lot of people from the legacy agencies who continue to carry the traditions from those agencies.”

And Capitol Hill is already jumping into the fray. US House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said in a statement that “it is crucial that the Administration appoints someone who does not underestimate the threats against us, and who is committed to enforcing the law and creating a unified Department.  The border is not secure, and the threat of terrorism is not diminishing. The vision and actions of the Department must reflect that reality.”

McCaul also complained that Napolitano’s departure “is a substantial addition to the growing list of unfilled key leadership positions within the Department, and the Administration should move swiftly to fill the gaping holes in its management.”

Democratic Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), Ranking Member of the Committee on Homeland Security lauded Napolitano “for her efforts at Departmental reforms and promoting a ‘One DHS’ culture for this relatively-new and very diverse organization.”

But Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee slammed Napolitano, saying that her tenure “was defined by a consistent disrespect for the rule of law,” and that “the most significant obstacle to immigration reform remains President Obama’s selective enforcement of the law. Any selection — interim or permanent — to replace Secretary Napolitano must disavow these aggressive non-enforcement directives or there is very little hope for successful immigration reform.”

Off we go.


Follow me:

Paul McLeary

McLeary covers national security policies at the White House, Pentagon, the Hill, and State Department.
Follow me:

Latest posts by Paul McLeary (see all)