Hospital Pass: DHS -- the job no one wants

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor  |  Nov. 12, 2008 at 10:48 AM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 12 (UPI) -- In the scrappy and often violent brand of rugby played at my school in South London, a "hospital pass" was a throw of the ball to a player when the opposition forwards were bearing down on him, guaranteeing him a bone-crushing place at the bottom of a pile of heavyset teenagers with big boots.

There are several issues where President Bush's handoff to the incoming Obama administration is going to feel like a hospital pass. And between now and the inauguration, I shall be writing about some of them.

Today: the Department of Homeland Security.

It is the job no one wants, at least according to two Democratic observers. Homeland security secretary "is not likely to be at the top of anyone's list of jobs they want," said one former Democratic homeland security congressional staffer. "There's not a lot of good things that can happen on your watch."

"It's a dead end" for ambitious politicians, said another Democratic observer, a former senior U.S. security official. "In many ways it is a thankless job. … The only time you will get attention is when there is a major systemic failure: either a (botched) response to a disaster, or a terrorist attack or some other border (or immigration) security issue."

In other words, the department's responsibilities lie within the intersecting blast radii of three potential time bombs for an Obama administration -- another Hurricane Katrina, another Sept. 11, and the nation's broken immigration and border policy.

And even absent disaster, the Homeland Security agenda is no garden of political delights. Many of its major acquisition programs -- like the Coast Guard's Deepwater recapitalization plan or the high-technology virtual border in the Southwest -- have been beset with cost overruns, underperformance and other management crises. A new secretary will face tough calls here.

Insiders say morale among department career officials is low and turnover high -- in part, a reflection of the fact that the agency is the redheaded stepchild of the federal government.

The Department of Homeland Security spent much of its first five years embroiled in internal and external turf battles, almost all of which it lost.

It is perhaps ironic that the department, whose creation was the fruit of a victory in an interagency battle -- does anyone think it was an accident that Attorney General John Ashcroft was abroad when the White House's U-turn on setting the department up was announced? -- should have fared so poorly in them since.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country and now the jewel in the crown of the department's immigration crackdown, was smacked down externally by the FBI when it tried to develop a counter-terror role and was screwed internally by fellow DHS agency Custom and Border Protection, whose budgeting shenanigans left it in a multimillion-dollar spending hole.

Although Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson was credited in some quarters with making progress on the daunting management issues that are the legacy of an awkward merger of 22 federal agencies, integration remains a work in progress, and it hasn't been helped by talk among some Obama supporters of stripping some of them out of the troubled department.

The general consensus among homeland security experts outside the transition appears to be that the department needs time to continue to work out existing structural kinks.

"The thinking is that to change it now would be more problematic than to allow a new leadership time to make the existing structure work," said David Heyman of the non-partisan think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, at least until the quadrennial departmental assessment due at the end of next year.

On the other hand, the incoming administration already has promised to create one new post -- a federal government chief technology officer, possibly with cybersecurity responsibilities -- that might necessitate a rearrangement of some DHS responsibilities, perhaps opening the door to a wider rethink of its role.

Barring a major restructuring, the department will continue to have lead responsibility in those three areas that could present major political problems for the new administration -- disaster response, counter-terrorism, and immigration and border security.

So, who would want the job?

One list of answers would be anyone who wants to fix the U.S. immigration system, which is, from a policy point of view, one of the most profoundly broken functions of the federal government.

It's an open question how eager the new administration will be to embrace this politically volatile subject, however.

If the president-elect wants to appoint someone who really desires the Homeland Security job, rather than seeing it as a poor second prize -- and to cover his flank on at least one of those three potential time bombs -- he could do a lot worse than look to an emergency management or disaster response professional.

Such a pick would also signal a determination to make the department live up to the promise that its all-hazards approach to disaster response offers: to make the nation more resilient and better able to handle any kind of emergency -- be it terror attack or hurricane.

Finally, it also would telegraph a welcome relief from the politically motivated immigration crackdown the department has embarked on in recent months -- fighting terrorism with federal indictments against meat-packers.

James Lee Witt, to repeat a name mentioned by several observers, has a proven track record as a national-level leader capable of connecting with the public in a disaster situation. U.S. Coast Guard Chief Thad Allen is another official -- albeit with a military rather than an emergency management background -- who has shown the ability to lead in a crisis.

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