Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 18, 2013

Security-free Pedigree for Heads of DHS

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Nick Catrantzos on November 18, 2013

A subtitle could be DHS Execs: Video Gamers in a Contact Sport.

The ostensible leadership of the federal monolith charged with protecting the United States against existential threats at home continues to fill its executive ranks with people whose security expertise is either inflated or undetectable. The net result is akin to appointing a couch-addicted video gamer as quarterback for a team entering the Super Bowl. He may be fragile, but at least he has no arm, no legs, and no grace under pressure, even if his thumb-to-joystick coordination is world-class.

Enter Jeh Johnson, the latest attorney and bureaucrat to contend for stewardship of the Department of Homeland Security without the burden of ever having been responsible for actually protecting people or property. Raising campaign funds, prosecuting felons, haggling with other lawyers, and occupying sinecures doled out after successful political campaigns by grateful principals may certainly qualify an individual for patronage and the trappings of high office. Nevertheless, these talents fall short of bringing subject matter expertise to the job of protecting America from existential threats at home.

In this lack of anything properly describable as professional capacity, however, Mr. Johnson is neither unique nor especially reprehensible. Just because he has no experience protecting anything, this does not separate him markedly from his predecessors for one main reason: Neither were they. After all, prosecuting felons, the closest most of them have come to what the media confuse as a security role, has as much to do with preventing an attack as an autopsy has to do with saving a patient’s life.

Prosecution does not happen until after a loss has occurred. Consequently, it does nothing to prevent the loss. At theoretical best, prosecution serves a societal objective of making villains pay for their misdeeds and perhaps — a big and oft-debated perhaps — deter future malefactors from committing the same crime. Thus prosecution may contribute to public safety. It does little for protection, for security. This is why, at least in the private sector, security departments earn their keep by preventing losses from occurring in the first place rather than by chasing down the people responsible for causing those losses. Prevention, in other words, trumps apprehension. In the vast majority of cases, the time, resources, and expense of hunting down the people responsible for causing a loss are wildly out of proportion to the return for such efforts. Not only is an ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure, but in security the prevention is desired and affordable while the cure is a luxury that comes too late if the patient, i.e. the business, is already dead or on a morphine-drip after a catastrophic loss or attack has taken place.

So, why hire non-security professionals for what may well be the nation’s top security job? Given the consistency in the pedigrees of all DHS secretaries to date, one must infer that the real recruiting criteria are not so much about protection and prevention as about other things. What are those other things? I submit that there are three true qualifications in demand.


A South Korean general who pinned on his first star within a year of Jim Clapper, before either foresaw the latter’s rise to Director of National Intelligence, once told me this: “Colonel is military rank. General is political rank.” The top DHS job takes and confers political rank. Any office holder expects to spend more time testifying before various House and Senate committees or managing the relations between DHS and Congress than actually doing productive work in his or her office. Consequently, in order to navigate successfully through such waters, the Secretary of DHS must be a pilot who knows the political shoals and landscapes. He or she best does this by, well, being cut from the same cloth, by being one of them. And most of them are lawyers who have spent the bulk of their careers in the public sector — just like every Homeland Security top executive and candidate for that office.


The only possible exception to this criterion — and only to a part of it — was the first DHS executive, Tom Ridge. He was more of a peer to President Bush, having met and interacted with him when both were state governors. Consequently, when the out-of-office Governor Ridge needed a job and President George W. Bush needed the first DHS cabinet secretary, Ridge came in as a known to Bush. The two eventually grew to have their differences, but Ridge never directly showed insubordination to his boss. Subsequent incumbents were clearly more subordinate and beholden to their patrons. Michael Chertoff owed Presidents Bush (father and son) for some of his career appointments, and he was arguably the most cerebral and accomplished of DHS secretaries and candidates to date. Janet Napolitano, unlike Chertoff, had been elected to higher office as a governor, yet had no ostensible time in a peer relationship with her patron, President Obama. She did endorse him when he was a presidential candidate, as did Jeh Johnson, the latter also having raised funds for Obama’s campaign. Both Napolitano and Johnson supported and benefited from ties to the Clinton administration and Democrat party affiliation, just as Ridge and Chertoff did from Bush and Republican ties. Manifestly, then, political acceptability and familiarity to the appointing boss, whether Democrat or Republican, appears to be a more important selection criterion than, say, demonstrable security expertise.


Again, Ridge may have been a partial exception to this criterion in that he entered the office after having been a peer of the president who appointed him. Nevertheless, he and all successors remain presentable to the media, Congress, and the public while never rising to the kind of prominence that would eclipse that of the Commander in Chief. To explore this criterion, consider who the Secretary of Homeland Security has not been. After 9/11, the most prominent and publicly intuitive pick would have been Rudolph Giuliani. Not only did he turn around crime-related decline in America’s largest city, he showed leadership in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, earning the sobriquet, America’s Mayor. Anyone with direct exposure to this individual, though, has also been exposed to an out-sized ego and work habits that were likely more chaotic and incompatible to those of President Bush. A look at Giuliani and at either Bush or Obama, however, soon foreshadows incorrigible unreconcilability. Having himself contended for the office of President, Giuliani would invariably threaten to steal the thunder of any Commander in Chief. Since the latter remains a political office, too, no incumbent would embrace as Secretary of DHS a person who might intentionally or otherwise redirect limelight away from the nation’s chief executive.

With criteria such as the foregoing in play, is it any wonder that traces of actual security competence end up ranking so low on the list of selection criteria as to belong in the nice-to-have-but-not-essential category?


— Nick Catrantzos

[This essay was originally posted on All Secure]

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Comment by Arnold Bogis

November 18, 2013 @ 11:24 pm

Thanks for the provocative post. If you don’t mind, I just wanted to push back against a few points, as I think that some in the HS community are taking the wrong message from the nomination of the new Secretary.

In short: DHS has arrived. The nomination of a seasoned DC operator close to the sitting president brings DHS up to the level of the State and Defense Departments. How often do career Foreign Service Officers or military officials get nominated to be heads of their respective departments?

In addition, Bob Gates was either the first or a rare example of a career intelligence operator making it to the level of DCI. And while he was regarded as a superb Director, Leon Panetta was also very well regarded. Exactly how long did Panetta serve in the intelligence community? (And I’ve heard from more than one member of that community that his tenure was more appreciated than that of Petraeus, who could claim more of a security background…)

My point being that perhaps being close to the President and armed with some knowledge of the bureaucracy might be more beneficial to DHS – the department – than another outsider with some claim to law enforcement experience or working at the local/state level. At the end of the day, the person sitting in the DHS Secretary’s office will have a small role in determining the course of the overall homeland security enterprise.

In terms of previous DHS Secretaries, Ridge probably wasn’t considered a “peer,” even when they were both governors. Who had the better shot at national office? Who had access to the important insiders and operators? Who was a “Bush” and who was the governor of Pennsylvania?

One might note that Ridge took a position inside the White House heading a homeland security office before the creation of a cabinet level department (which the Bush Administration opposed at first). So initially he was at a level under the Chief of Staff and National Security Adviser.

For an example closer to a peer relationship would be Obama and Clinton, as not only was she his direct competition for the nomination but along with former President Clinton and all their supporters represented an entirely independent power node in the Democratic party.

Finally, I would not take anything away from Giuliani’s performance on and shortly after 9/11. However, it is also important to remember that crime in NYC (and in cities across the country) began falling before his election. And that according to many reported stories, it was he who pushed President Bush to nominate Bernie Kerik for DHS Secretary (before Chertoff). So I guess it might have been a very interesting staff at DHS if Giuliani had become Secretary instead…

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 18, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

Thanks Nick and Arnold! I can only wish I had said that but certainly would never have come close to being as articulate.

My problem is that while the comments are accurate but perhaps too simplistic. Why? HS needed skills in very very short supply nationally. Many wicked problems and too few problem solvers. Chertoff to his credit almost pulled off immigration reform, with a supportive President, and this arena is far more important to HS then many realize. Immigration reform may well be outcome determinative in the next two National elections.
The fact that so little gets done in Washington surprises no one. What should be the focus is on finding as leaders those who are proven problem solvers.
President’s historical rank seems premised to me on what they accomplished not their failures. And what exactly have Mr. Johnson’s predecessors accomplished at DHS and what are Mr. Johnson’s prospects for accomplishment?

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 19, 2013 @ 10:28 am

And Arnold with almost 20,000 politically vetted US government positions largely based on party affiliation and loyalty to the hiring officialdom few selected for their professionalism, competence, and relevant experience.

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