Janet Napolitano's tenure as the longest-serving secretary of the Department of Homeland Security won praise from former employees and observers Friday, following the announcement of her resignation. The 55-year-old former governor of Arizona will become president of the University of California system, likely taking the reins in September, according to news reports.
DHS is an amalgamation of nearly two dozen agencies as disparate as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which manages the clean up of natural disasters, to the Secret Service Agency, which oversees protecting the president. Created in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, DHS has a reputation for being a bureaucratic nightmare, with territorial overlap issues with other departments, such as the Pentagon.
Though criticized by some on the left for overseeing a record number of immigrant deportations, and harangued by the right for overreaching as the nation's top cop, Napolitano successfully navigated the egos and red tape of a complex bureaucracy, former colleagues say.
"That's how I would describe her tenure – the department has matured and developed as a bureaucracy and as an organization," says Evan Wolff, a former adviser to the senior leadership at the DHS. "There still needs to be continued integration, but that was a clear focus of hers."
Juliette Kayyem, a former DHS assistant secretary, said Napolitano made the country safer by using a comprehensive approach to her responsibilities.
"She understood, and drove that message throughout an agency that had been formed in the wake of 9/11, that the homeland's success was in how it could better balance safety with other important priorities – fast and efficient transportation, our role in a global economy, and the flow of people and goods that make this nation so vibrant," Kayyem said in an email. "By integrating policies, priorities and funding towards building a nation more able to respond to the many threats we face and more resilient to the inevitable harms that come our way, she has made the public safer and the department better."
But Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., an outspoken opponent to comprehensive immigration reform, accused Napolitano for having a lack of regard for the rule of law, based on the Obama administration policy enacted last year to grant temporary legal status to children of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States through no fault of their own.
"The resignation of Secretary Napolitano should refocus the attention of Congress on its first task: to ensure that the executive branch faithfully carries out the laws of the land," he said in a release. "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."
But pro-immigration reform Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., offered praise for his fellow Arizonan, calling her role "one of the toughest and most thankless jobs in Washington."
"We have had our share of disagreements during her time as secretary, but I have never doubted her integrity, work ethic or commitment to our nation's security," he said in a release.
Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, says the real story of Napolitano's time was the lack of a defining incident.
"The fact that people aren't saying we should throw this agency away and start over again – which people had said after it's start – is a tribute to her leadership," he says. "That's the key thing – even with the Boston bombing, people didn't fault Homeland Security for not doing their job and there was pretty good coordination among the police departments at all of the levels."
Korb also says there was never a lot of evidence of turf battles with Napolitano either, a common problem among related agency heads.
"They did get along with her very well – you did not hear for example the folks in the Pentagon or the FBI complaining about her," he says.
Speculation over who President Barack Obama will tap to replace Napolitano is rampant, with ex-lawmakers Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent former senator from Connecticut, and Jane Harmon, a former House Democrat from California – both of whom helped craft the legislation that created DHS – leading the way. But also mentioned are well-respected law enforcement and military veterans, such as Ray Kelly, the New York City police commissioner, and former Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen.
Insiders add that Napolitano, meanwhile, is likely to return to the political world - she's already sometimes mentioned as a potential Supreme Court justice or presidential nominee.
"I would assume she has future ambitions," says one former Napolitano associate.