On Wednesday Secretary Napolitano gave a speech with potentially broad implications. Her audience was the Anti-Defamation League. But the audience was probably less important to the contents of the speech than the timing. Official and media-oriented Washington are now very much in the wind-up to the 100-Day evaluations.
As if preparing for the first big test of the semester, the Secretary is thinking through the questions likely to be asked. “With 22 different agencies, 22 different histories, 22 different legacies—how do you create a department, and a unified department, under those circumstances? And what is the Department’s charge? All these missions. What is its basic mission and what are we here to do?”
She starts her answers with terrorism— and this time she uses the term — as the Department’s first and most important mission. “The issue of terrorism, counterterrorism, in the broader sense is the number one mission of the Department. It is why it was founded, and it is what we grapple with every day.”
The former Arizona Governor then takes up border security making the distinction between “securing” rather than “sealing” the border. In a series of recent speeches the Secretary has emphasized that borders “are almost like living, breathing organisms.” To extend the analogy, the organism has had difficulty with its immune system and is experiencing occasional convulsions. The goal is to stabilize and strengthen the organism; to keep out the bad while nurturning long-term quality of life.
Next on the list is immigration, which may be the issue that put Napolitano on the top of the President’s list for DHS Secretary. She is especially clear on the issue’s center-of-gravity. “The bulk of illegal immigration into our country is labor migration… So if you’re going to deal with illegal immigration, you have to deal with not only the supply, the workers, but those who are creating the demand, the employers as well. And that has given rise to a shift in focus on immigration enforcement, and that is to really assemble cases against employers who consistently and intentionally use the illegal labor market as opposed to the legal alternative.”
“Improvement in preparation for and recovery from natural disasters” is the fourth mission priority the Secretary highlights. “Katrina was an eye-opening experience in so many different ways, a tragedy that could have been prevented in so many ways. Nonetheless, our job is to say, all right. What are we going to do so we never have an episode like that in our history again? And what lessons learned, and how do we improve overall our preparation for not just hurricanes but earthquakes, forest fires, all the other natural disasters that can occur?”
“Our fifth and last one is to foster a common culture of unity within the department… I think those of you who have ever been managers of a business or any kind of a large organization, you can appreciate—when the department was formed, it didn’t have offices together. It didn’t have a common e-mail system. It didn’t have stationery. It didn’t have any common purchasing principles, program management principles, all the kind of nuts and bolts you have to have to have a large department with a complex mission move forward. Those things are now in place, and the department is moving forward as one Department of Homeland Security.”
It is difficult to find time to really think. This is true for most of us, but is especially the case for a cabinet secretary. As a result, our senior officials sometimes think out-loud with us in their speeches. Political and policy speeches were once the output of thinking. They are now more often an exploratory predicate to thinking. We should respect the effort, listen carefully, pose helpful questions, and not be too quick with our own unthinking response.