The Department of Homeland Security's physical footprint in Washington is as sprawling as its mandate. DHS doesn't have a single headquarters. Rather, it has dozens of offices for the agencies that fall under its control.
For Janet Napolitano, a former two-term Arizona governor accustomed to wide-open desert roads, commuting through city traffic between all these facilities, not to mention the White House and Congress, means being prepared. "They tell me 15 minutes, and I plan for 30. And that's with an escort," Napolitano says with a grimace. She's only the third person to take the reins of DHS, following Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff.
It's not called one of the hardest jobs in Washington for nothing. There's the grueling pace, even for an avid hiker like Napolitano, with heavy responsibilities, long hours, and a frustrating bureaucracy. Not to mention the 108 congressional committees and subcommittees watching over her shoulder.
The 51-year-old is usually up and at the office early, drinking the first of several coffees as she receives briefings on the latest terrorist threats, weather reports, and other updates from around the country. She doesn't get home until long after dark.
Chief among the issues Napolitano will have to address is defining a mission for her agency. Rather than a well-oiled machine responsible for keeping America safe after 9/11, as Bush administration officials claimed, DHS is actually an organizational mess, says homeland security expert Stephen Flynn. "In retrospect, we'll look back at DHS and wonder why we didn't organize it better sooner," he says.
DHS has serious and well-documented deficiencies. Among them is an abundance of political appointees, which means high turnover and a regular loss of institutional knowledge. Moreover, DHS's authorities are plagued by a host of jurisdictional conflicts between federal, state, and local governments and the private sector when it comes to disaster preparedness and response. The struggle to respond to Hurricane Katrina is a prime example. And the overabundance of congressional oversight runs in direct opposition to one of the key recommendations of the 9/11 commission, which urged a more streamlined oversight process.
One way to reform the department is to refocus its pursuits. Terrorism was the impetus behind the creation of DHS in 2003, but Napolitano has moderated the volume of the public warnings that marked the last administration, particularly on terrorism, security experts say. Perhaps indicative of this shift, Napolitano hints that the days of the much-maligned "threat advisory" color-coded system may be numbered.
Critics charge that the permanent warning, for years set to "elevated," sends the wrong message, promoting both anxiety and complacency. "We're looking at some things, like the color alert level, to see if they actually helped people to be prepared or not," Napolitano says. "We shouldn't be in a state of fear, but we should do everything we can to be aware."
The refocusing of the DHS mission beyond terrorism began early in Napolitano's term. In her first appearance before one of the congressional oversight committees, Napolitano didn't even mention the words terrorism or vulner ability, nor did she refer to the 9/11 attacks. Asked recently to define DHS's goals, she rattles off nearly a dozen "priorities," from cleaning up after natural disasters to port security, with an emphasis on preparing for any emergency, regardless of the cause.
The new approach wasn't discussed much during the recent presidential campaign. In fact, homeland security was scarcely mentioned by either candidate. And Obama hasn't articulated his own vision for the sprawling department since taking office. He did take the early first step of folding the Homeland Security Council, which advises the president on security issues, inside the larger National Security Council, a move that some saw as pushing some DHS issues to the back burner. Indeed, much of Napolitano's success will depend on how much support she can get from the White House to put her department's priorities in the spotlight and to generally curb the bureaucracy.
Napolitano's first real test as the nation's chief security officer came with the swine flu outbreak in March. She oversaw tracking of the flu's spread across the border from Mexico and coordinated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Labor, and Education. Officials from the CDC and the World Health Organization may have received more face time on television, but Napolitano was at the center of the government's response. "We were very clear on the message," she says. "Rely on science; communicate regularly what we know and what we don't know."
The response to the initial flu outbreak (it's still in several countries, and experts predict that it will return in full force to the United States in the winter) received generally high marks from security and public-health experts. "She was able to step up and focus on the swine flu rather than fight the interagency turf wars that emerge during high-profile events," says Daniel Kaniewski, who served as President Bush's special assistant for homeland security. Kaniewski added that the adept handling of the outbreak was also helped by a critical presidential directive, issued in late February, that placed DHS in charge of the national incident management system. It was a little-noticed power shift to DHS that is likely to streamline the response to future national crises.
But for DHS to be truly organized, the agencies within it need to be in one place. This month, the government began the initial stages of converting St. Elizabeth's, a former mental hospital in the southern part of Washington, into a massive campus that will house many of the DHS-affiliated agencies. It will rival the Pentagon as one of the largest government complexes in the area. And although Napolitano will oversee some of the consolidation of the offices, since the complex won't be ready until 2016, it won't ease her commute anytime soon.
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