June 1, 2007
By Shane Harris
On November 2, 2004, top officials from the Homeland Security Department held a small Election Night party at a Washington restaurant to watch the presidential election returns come in on television. Nearly every leader there owed his job to the man then fighting for his own job — George W. Bush.
The department was almost two years old and run almost entirely by political appointees. Twenty-three months earlier, they had been tapped to lash together 22 disparate, frequently dysfunctional agencies, some of whose failures to safeguard domestic security contributed to the 9/11 attacks.
As the returns trickled in, there was an hour or so when it appeared that Bush’s Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, might overtake him in the electoral vote count. Rather suddenly, some partygoers recalled, it dawned on them that they might be out of a job.
As they looked around the room, they realized they hadn’t fully considered who would replace them. Who, they wondered, would keep the department running while President-elect Kerry picked a new leadership team? What career officials, whose posts are designed to outlast any one administration, would step in to ensure that planes flew safely, that borders were patrolled, that the government could respond swiftly to a natural disaster? No one could say for sure, because DHS had no plan.
“All the politicals thought we were out,” says Stewart Verdery, then the department’s assistant secretary for policy and planning for border and transportation security. Verdery was an energetic and experienced Capitol Hill staffer who had come to Homeland Security after a stint as senior legislative adviser to Vivendi Universal, the media conglomerate. But DHS was uncharted territory. “There was a definite sense that the transition was going to be rocky,” he recalls.
The department’s top echelons, of course, never had to experience what horrors a clunky handover of power could bring. But whether those leaders knew it or not, they possibly had just averted more than a management disaster.
The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the attacks of September 11, 2001, both occurred within eight months of a change in presidential administrations. (At the time of the first attack, Bill Clinton had been president exactly 37 days.) In March 2004, Qaeda-linked terrorists bombed four Madrid commuter trains three days before Spain’s national elections. Periods of political transition are, by their very nature, chaotic; terrorists know this, and they exploit it. This is the reality: Terrorists strike when they believe governments will be caught off guard.
As of June 2, there are 597 days until the next presidential inauguration, on January 20, 2009. As the Bush administration’s days wind down, the government’s level of vulnerability — and the nation’s risk level — increase, and they will stay high until the next president gets on his or her feet. This is true in any transition. “The first year and a half of a new administration is really the most vulnerable in terms of political leadership,” says Paul Light, a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.
January 2009 has current and former officials particularly worried, because it marks the first time since 9/11 that the reins of national and domestic security will be handed off to a completely new team. At the Pentagon, this changeover doesn’t matter as much. It has an entire joint staff of senior military officers who oversee worldwide operations, as well as regional military commands whose senior leadership stays in place. The Homeland Security Department, however, is another story. It is still run almost entirely by political appointees and stands to be the most weakened during the transition.
“Any of the other main Cabinet departments have civil servants that step in” as acting officials during a transition, says Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a leading expert on the department and its history. “Homeland Security doesn’t have any of those…. And that’s extremely unusual.”
In the four and a half years since the department opened for business, few career officials have been promoted into positions of senior or even middle management. As a result, most of the responsibility for running the department, and its plethora of critical missions, is still in the hands of people who will be walking out the door as the Bush administration wanes or leaves en masse after the election. “The department virtually has no backbench,” Flynn says.
The upheaval that strikes all organizations during presidential transitions will be magnified at Homeland Security, which has the third-largest workforce of any Cabinet department. And because the department’s primary mission is to prepare for and respond to catastrophes, the magnitude of a terrorist attack or natural disaster during the transition could be compounded.
“The attack, when it happens, will be far more consequential,” Flynn says. Light echoes that sentiment, and alludes to the department’s most notorious disaster response. “The odds of a repeat of [Hurricane] Katrina are higher.”
Former officials and experts are alarmed that so few Bush administration officials or lawmakers of either party have fully grasped this, and they worry that come Inauguration Day, national security could suffer.
“My fear is that on January 20, where does that transition team go to triage, quickly, the first 10 decisions they need to make?” asks Randy Beardsworth, who left the department in September 2006 as the assistant secretary for strategic plans. “There’s not going to be a senior official with broad experience to answer that unless the transition team gets a couple of key folks to stay on a while.”
When he departed DHS, Beardsworth was one of the last remaining senior officials who had helped the department stand up. And at the time of the 2004 election, he was one of the few career civil servants — and the most senior one — in a leadership post, and thus one of the few senior leaders who would have stayed on without having to be asked.
What people like Beardsworth — career, nonpartisan security experts — fear now is that another storm is heading the department’s way. It makes landfall in 597 days, and the consequences could be severe. Hurricane Katrina was tracked on radar for several days before it struck; federal officials did make some preparations, but obviously they were inadequate. Will the department be ready for this next season of vulnerability? Some officials and homeland-security experts say that the Bush administration — and even the presidential candidates — should take action now to avoid a crisis.
Political by Design
The predicament in which the department now finds itself is almost entirely of its own and the White House’s making. President Bush, who initially opposed creating a different domestic security bureaucracy after 9/11, ultimately assented amid mounting evidence about what clues the administration missed in the run-up to the attacks. Indeed, the White House changed its stance at the same time that Congress held hearings into pre-9/11 intelligence failures, in the summer of 2002. Before the year was out, Bush signed legislation to establish the department, which opened officially in January 2003.
From its inception, Homeland Security was run by political appointees or by other officials on loan to headquarters from the various agencies the department had absorbed. There wasn’t a lot of time to post job notices and staff the ranks with career employees, who take much longer to hire, former officials say.
DHS had to be fully operational on day one. So, the White House and then-Secretary Tom Ridge largely handpicked their leadership team from the ranks of Bush loyalists. Before the 2004 election, Ridge’s deputy secretary, his chief of staff, and almost all of his assistant and undersecretaries and their deputies were political appointees, people who by design would not stay long.
Former officials and experts recognize that haste dictated those early decisions. The problem, they say, is that the trend toward political appointees never subsided.
According to figures compiled in the quadrennial Plum Book by the Office of Personnel Management, as of September 2004 the 180,000-employee Homeland Security Department had more than 360 politically appointed, noncareer positions.
By contrast, the Veterans Affairs Department — the government’s second-largest department, at 235,000 employees — had only 64. And the Defense Department — far and away the largest department in the government, at 2.1 million employees, including military and civilian — counted 283 appointed, noncareer billets. That figure includes political appointees at the Army, Navy, and Air Force. DHS’s own reports show that since 2004, it has often added more political positions to its ranks, and more frequently, than other large departments.
It’s common in government to find political appointees concentrated in policy shops, public-affairs offices, and legislative liaison posts. But that has never been the case at Homeland Security, where appointees run the first- and second-tier layers across almost all of the department’s units.
“Early on, there was a sense that the administration wanted mostly political people,” Beardsworth says. “They were very much concerned about loyalty and shaping the department where they wanted it to go.” He says he always believed that his boss, Asa Hutchinson, the first undersecretary for border and transportation security, as well as Ridge “had the good of the country at heart…. I never had the feeling that we were making partisan decisions.”
But after the 2004 election, when Bush announced that he “earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it,” things changed. Under the new DHS secretary, Michael Chertoff, former officials say that the tone and tenor of political appointments took a turn. Personal connections and political fealty became litmus tests, these ex-officials say. Faithfully shepherding administration policy was to be expected, but the department’s leaders seemed more beholden to individuals with close ties to the White House.
In September 2005, for instance, the administration sought to install Julie Myers, a 36-year-old lawyer with little management experience, as the assistant secretary in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division. ICE was poorly run and a constant problem for the department, and during her nomination hearing, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, told Myers she was unqualified to helm the unwieldy agency.
For many critics, Myers’s strong political connections explained her swift rise to power. She is the niece of Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She is married to John Wood, who was Chertoff’s chief of staff and an ex-aide to Attorney General John Ashcroft. (Wood is now the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri.) Despite Julie Myers’s lack of experience, President Bush gave her a recess appointment to the job.
The Land of Misfit Toys
Charges of nepotism, cronyism, and incompetence continued to dog Homeland Security’s senior ranks, particularly after the fumbled response to Hurricane Katrina, which was initially directed by an official with meager experience in disaster response — Michael Brown. Nominees who would normally have slid into their jobs with little notice were now held up to scrutiny and sometimes ridicule. Take the case of Andrew Maner, a former staffer to President George H.W. Bush, who became the department’s chief financial officer. Responsible for a multibillion-dollar budget, Maner couldn’t point to any obvious credentials in accounting and finance on his resume.
And then there was Douglas Hoelscher. The former White House staffer and Republican campaign aide was 28 years old when he became executive director of the Homeland Security Advisory Committee last year. The policy group gathers advice on such critical issues as protecting infrastructure and countering weapons of mass destruction.
Hoelscher had no management experience, but had apparently proven himself as a Bush campaign staffer. At the time of his appointment, he was the department’s liaison to the White House, where, in the words of a Homeland Security spokeswoman, he “made sure [that political appointees] were all placed in the office where they were happiest and … fit best.”
Most recently, Philip Perry, the department’s now ex-general counsel, stirred critics’ ire. Perry is Vice President Cheney’s son-in-law. In February, David Walker, the comptroller general of the United States and Congress’s chief watchdog, told House overseers that his office faced “systemic” and “persistent” problems trying to obtain DHS documents because it had to go through Perry. Walker complained that Perry’s office reviewed documents before their release, and that his staff sat in on investigative interviews with Homeland Security employees.
Of all the departments in the government, Homeland Security has the most notorious reputation for placing political appointees in jobs over their heads. In fact, even before the bungled response to Katrina, critics warned that the department could be come a haven for patronage if officials didn’t work hard to beef up DHS’s career ranks.
Indeed, Homeland Security has earned a reputation as a political dumping ground, a sort of Land of Misfit Toys, where GOP fundraisers or apparatchiks are sent to pad their resumes or to cool their heels. There is more than a little truth to this — the department does have a lot of political appointees whose main strength seems to be loyalty to Bush and connections to the White House. But former officials and observers say that the department has many well-intentioned and hardworking political employees, including in the senior ranks.
Nevertheless, the stain of incompetence and cronyism hasn’t faded, nor has the reality that Homeland Security is something of a revolving door. According to Flynn, of the 60 top officials at the department, only one has been there since 2003 when Homeland Security opened its doors.
“This is essentially the most challenging merger and acquisition in government history, and it’s being managed with this turnover in people,” Flynn says. His fear, shared by other experts, is that the limited institutional memory of the Ridge years was lost under Chertoff, and that that memory will be lost again when a new administration takes over.
The department’s leaders have virtually no playbook for transition, something other departments and agencies of that size literally pull off the shelf every four or eight years. “They’re almost starting from scratch,” Flynn says.
The Exit Strategy
If the department is to weather the storm of transition, it will largely depend on the efforts of one man — Michael Jackson, Homeland Security’s deputy secretary.
“If a day goes by and I don’t use up some of my brain cells focusing on this problem, it’s a very unusual day,” he says. The administration has a set of policy goals it wants to achieve before the transition. But underpinning that, Jackson says, is a plan to leave the department stronger than it is now, “so that people [will] start a new administration with the sense that the department has reached a level of maturity.” The possibility of a major attack before or soon after the transition factors into his planning.
Jackson says he is drawing up succession plans for “every operational component”: the Secret Service, the Immigrations and Customs division, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and others, as well as the top layers of management. The basic idea is to find talented career, nonpolitical employees who can move up into more-senior ranks, and then serve in an acting capacity when the administration changes hands. (It will be the next president’s prerogative to keep or dismiss those officials.)
“We’ve gone throughout the entire organization and looked for people like this to promote,” Jackson says. “We’re trying to nurture a cadre of owners. I am the part-time help at DHS.”
Jackson acknowledges that it hasn’t been easy to keep good help. “We’ve had a significant turnover,” he says. “And that turnover has been below the top-level jobs as well.” But, he insists, preparations for the transition are well under way. “I would say we are well beyond the halfway point in what we have to get done.”
Certain agencies within DHS ought to fare better than others. The Coast Guard, for instance, has an entrenched military culture, so command will shift more smoothly. The Secret Service, although now headed by a presidential appointee, will still likely draw from within its own ranks in the next administration. And in the intelligence directorate, officials have implemented a slew of training programs to cultivate junior officers for more-senior posts.
But it’s the headquarters operation, not the front-line agencies, that has observers most worried. The constant turnover and reliance on political appointees has effectively stunted the growth of a management class.
There are notable exceptions. The current commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Ralph Basham, and FEMA Director David Paulsion have spent most of their careers in government and have held other senior positions in the department.
But across the top layers of Homeland Security, critics say, the department is still far more reliant on political appointees than other large departments. And this state of affairs causes some national security experts to pose a challenge to the field of 2008 presidential hopefuls: Commit now that if you win the election, you will keep the top leaders at Homeland Security, and across the intelligence agencies, perhaps indefinitely.
Permanence in Transition
It might seem anathema that, say, a President Hillary Rodham Clinton would ask Michael Chertoff or any of his lieutenants to serve in her administration. It might seem even less likely that any candidate of either party, given how forcefully they’ll try to distance themselves from the security policies of the Bush administration, would throw out an open invitation for the architects of those policies to hang around. But that might just be the soundest move in the interests of national security.
“It’s possible,” Jackson says. For example, even if Chertoff left, his replacement could ask the director of FEMA or his deputy to stay. “That would be one thing I’m prepared to advise,” Jackson says. And there is precedent for such a move.
Michael Hayden, now the director of the CIA, served under two presidents — Clinton and the second Bush — as National Security Agency director. Ex-CIA Director George Tenet also held on to his job in that transition. True, Tenet lobbied to stay, and the CIA director’s success has always depended on a personal rapport with the president. (Tenet and Bush got along from the start.) But Hayden and Tenet proved that professionals can overcome politics, at least during a transition.
Members of Congress have considered awarding top intelligence and security jobs political immunity. In the mid-1990s, House Republicans contemplated making the CIA director the head of the agency — rather than an overall intelligence czar as the director was then — and giving the position some statutory longevity. The idea was to make the job more like the FBI director’s post, which doesn’t automatically turn over on Election Day, says Tim Sample, who was the staff director of the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee at the time.
“The only reason we did not take that step in our recommendations was the issue of the personal rapport with the president,” says Sample, who is now president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit intelligence advocacy group. Lawmakers understood that the president and the CIA director had a unique relationship, one they thought should be preserved. But they still believed that, fundamentally, the job should be above politics, and Sample says this is truer than ever today.
This idea is gaining traction again in security circles, especially in the intelligence community, where many current and former officials think that the recent appointments of several seasoned experts to top slots has resulted in a “Dream Team.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a former CIA director; career intelligence officer James Clapper is Gates’s military spy chief; former National Security Agency Director Mike McConnell is now director of national intelligence; and Hayden, the ex-NSA chief, is running the CIA.
Former officials and experts recoil at the idea of losing such a deeply experienced, collegial, and by all accounts remarkably apolitical team of leaders at such a critical moment for national security. They want lawmakers and the presidential candidates to consider keeping those officials in their posts.
The same goes for Homeland Security. “The only reason there are all those [political] positions is just because of the way the department came together,” Sample says. “One could argue those should not be political positions.”
There’s precedent for that, too. Before the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was established in April 2005, career assistant directors managed the intelligence agencies, and were charged with overseeing various programs and policies that stretched across administrations. On a practical level, the agencies needed that continuity, but officials also wanted to avoid politicizing intelligence, Sample says. It has always been a difficult goal, inconsistently achieved, but it’s one that all presidents are encouraged to aim for.
Some experts have suggested that Congress cap the number of politically appointed senior posts at Homeland Security as a way of stanching future brain drains. Sens. Voinovich and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, have proposed legislation to elevate the undersecretary for management to the third-ranking spot in the department. The bill would require a career employee to also serve in a five-year term as the secretary’s “principal adviser” on management issues.
Jackson, the deputy secretary, strongly opposes the bill, saying it is unnecessary. He insists that the current leaders understand the problems Voinovich and others have expressed. “This is stuff we all talk about,” he says. “The team gets it.
“I won’t blow smoke at you and say everything is nailed down and perfectly fixed,” Jackson continues. “The day that someone in my department tells you that about DHS is the day that person should get out of his job…. But [the transition plan] is not something I feel anxiety about.”
Those who know Jackson and have worked with him say he has never been one to put partisanship over security, and that he is not biased against career employees. But some have accused him of micromanaging the department and not handing over enough authority earlier to career officials. These failures, they say, have retarded the department’s maturation process. For his part, Jackson says he’s focused on the transition, and has drilled the urgency into all of his lieutenants.
In government, organizations mature by finding the right balance of politically motivated leaders and apolitical bureaucrats. The former have the ability, and the credibility, to make policy, and the latter actually know how to make it work. This is the tension that, sooner or later, leads to equilibrium.
Beardsworth, the former assistant secretary, has always adhered to that philosophy. He’s now a vice president at Analytic Services, a nonprofit research group that advises security and intelligence agencies. Its Homeland Security Institute, a federally funded research and development center established in the same law that created DHS, is counseling senior officials on transition strategies. Knowing the department lacks a playbook, Beardsworth hopes the institute has enough experts to help ease the transition, and he praises Jackson for taking action now.
But like Jackson, Beardsworth isn’t blowing any smoke. “Does the department have the right political and career mix to ensure a smooth transition?” he asks, sounding like a frustrated yet hopeful parent. “No. They’ve likely missed that opportunity.”