DHS faces growing leadership gap

At least 15 DHS leadership positions are vacant or filled temporarily, and the department's head is leaving next month.

Janet Napolitano

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced in July that she would be leaving the department in September.

With only a few weeks left before its current leader leaves for another job on the west coast, the Department of Homeland Security stands at a management crossroads.

The deficit of permanent, top level DHS management has been growing for months. According to the department's online leadership roster as of Aug. 12, at least 15 top positions across the organization are either vacant or temporarily filled.

 Secretary Janet Napolitano is set to step down in September to assume the presidency of the University of California system. The White House hasn't nominated a permanent replacement. President Barack Obama nominated U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas to become DHS deputy secretary and a temporary fill-in for the top spot. However, the DHS inspector general is investigating his role in helping provide a U.S. visa for a foreign businessman. Against that backdrop, the Senate left town in August for a month-long recess without taking action on his confirmation.

Since Napolitano's July 12 departure announcement, the White House has reportedly been considering a number of possible replacements, including Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, former Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, former Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, former California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman and others. A clear frontrunner hasn't emerged from the pack, however.

Meanwhile, as the number of vacancies and temporary assignments below Napolitano on the org chart has grown, President Obama has nominated only a handful of candidates. Most recently, Stevan Bunnel was tapped Aug. 1 to replace Ivan Fong as general counsel. Fong left DHS last September. The same day Obama also nominated R. Gil Kerlikowske, current commissioner of National Drug Control Policy, as commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

But a slew of vacancies and temporary assignments remain, and the number could soon increase.

DHS Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute left in April. Rand Beers stepped into the position as acting deputy secretary. Philip MacNamara is serving as acting chief of staff.

Margie Graves has been acting CIO since March 15, when former CIO Richard Spires went on leave from the position after four years of service. Spires resigned in May after two months of unexplained leave.

Acting Deputy Undersecretary for Cybersecurity Bruce McConnell is also reportedly leaving, to be replaced by McAfee's Chief Technology Officer Phyllis Schneck, who has not been formally nominated. Rafael Borras, DHS undersecretary for management, is also rumored to be considering whether to leave. Some people familiar with DHS management speculate that Beers, who doesn't have a clear path to stay at the agency short of a nomination as secretary, might also leave soon. Tara O'Toole, undersecretary of the Science & Technology Directorate, may also depart in the coming months.

A rush for the exits is standard operating procedure in second presidential terms. But some of the DHS vacancies are in areas that could prove crucial in the coming months with immigration legislation inching its way through Congress. If CIS' Mayorkas is approved by the Senate as deputy director of DHS, the key immigration agency will need a new director at a critical time. Since last August, CIS has been handling paperwork for the White House's controversial Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows some young adults illegally in the country to remain for two years. The DACA program has been seen as a precursor to the additional visa data processing and monitoring duties that could fall to DHS under any new immigration law.

Agencies tasked with handling enforcement, data collection and other critical border security and monitoring functions have their share of holes in its upper management

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, CBP and the Border Patrol -- are also without permanent directors. ICE Director John Morton stepped down at the end of July after four years on the job. DHS tapped John Sandweg as acting director.

If approved, Kerlikowske would take over CBP leadership from Thomas Winkowski, who was named deputy commissioner at the agency in March and had assumed the duties of commissioner.

"At some point, management hemorrhage begins to take a toll," said Christian Beckner, deputy director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute and an assistant vice president for Homeland Security at The George Washington University. The problem isn't people leaving, but not replacing those who have left, said Beckner, who used to be an associate on the staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, where he was responsible for coordinating the oversight of DHS management. "DHS is past that point now at its headquarters operations."

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said DHS "has some extraordinary people in acting positions," who nevertheless can be viewed as lame ducks with no lasting clout.

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