WASHINGTON, Sept. 25 (UPI) -- Michael Jackson, the top deputy to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, announced Monday he would quit the department next month; an unexpected departure that has stoked congressional concerns about the turnover of senior officials at the department.
Jackson, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of Homeland Security and its 208,000 employees, will step down Oct. 26, after 2½ years in the post, Chertoff said in a statement.
“I want to thank Deputy Secretary Jackson for his loyal service,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “I am, of course, concerned about a change in the top leadership of the department at this point in the Bush administration. I hope the president will quickly choose a successor.”
Lieberman’s House counterpart was more outspoken. “The department’s leadership has more holes than Swiss cheese,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, citing a May 1 study by Democratic staffers that found more than one in four senior positions there vacant.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke called Thompson’s comments “unfortunate and highly political.”
“It is disappointing that Rep. Thompson missed the opportunity to thank Deputy Secretary Jackson for his tireless service, rather than using the news as an opportunity to recycle his talking points.”
Knocke said Chertoff learned of Jackson’s plan to step down in a conversation with his deputy last Friday. Earlier this month Chertoff told Thompson in a congressional hearing that the current senior leadership of the department planned to stay on “subject to the limitations of presidential pleasure and God's willingness.”
Jackson, whose replacement will require Senate confirmation, is the point person on an initiative to smooth the transition to the next administration in Homeland Security, which has more political appointees than much larger departments such as Veterans Affairs or even Defense.
His sudden announcement “creates a hole in the leadership at (Homeland Security) at a time when serious management issues, including the transition to a new administration after next fall’s elections, plague the department,” said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Government Management.
“No one has done more to ready the department for transition” than Jackson, Knocke said. He said there were “succession plans for a cadre of career and non-career professionals who will stay through the transition” and that more than 70 new senior posts were being created throughout Homeland Security and its component agencies to be filled by career officials to ensure the department continued to operate effectively after January 2009.
The department’s record leaves some unconvinced.
“His departure is the perfect example of the problem he was supposed to be in charge of solving -- the high turnover of political appointees,” said one senior congressional staffer.
In an e-mail message to department staff, Jackson, who earns $168,000 a year, wrote that his departure was for financial reasons.
“The simple truth,” he wrote, “is that after over five years of serving with the president's team, I am compelled to depart for financial reasons that I can no longer ignore."
Prior to his appointment as Chertoff’s deputy, Jackson had been deputy secretary and chief operating officer at the Transportation Department, where he helped create the new Transportation Security Administration.
His government service was interrupted by a stint as senior vice president of government services group AECOM Technology Corp., before he returned to the administration in his new role at Homeland Security, according to WashingtonTechnology.com.
James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation said that both Jackson and Chertoff understood that there were too many political appointees in the department and that the changes Jackson was promoting were part of a “strategy to transition to a better balance” between political and non-political posts in the leadership.
Carafano added that Jackson’s sudden departure might cause some to reconsider the wisdom of making the secretary’s principal deputy also the man responsible for the department’s day-to-day operations, in effect a chief operating officer.
“Jackson has way too many direct reports,” he said.
Akaka called Jackson’s departure “another example of why there needs to be a chief management officer at the department.”
He advocated breaking the job in two, in effect, with a separate deputy secretary for management to address the department’s transition and other organizational challenges, “while allowing another deputy secretary to focus on daily operations.”
Carafano cautioned against yet further re-writes of the org chart for Homeland Security, which has been subject to a series of congressionally mandated reshuffles since it was set up in 2003.
“We are long past the point where any efficiencies you might get from a reorganization would be overwhelmed by its costs,” he said.
Chertoff’s statement called Jackson “an outstanding public servant, among the best of his generation” -- a generous tribute to a man who, from a certain point of view, might have left him a little in the lurch.
“Michael is the longest-serving deputy secretary at this department and has devoted enormous energy, talent and thought into making it a stronger, more integrated and mature organization. He is a remarkable chief operating officer, my most trusted counselor and a close personal friend,” Chertoff said.