I just returned to my office from the well-attended policy speech that new DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson gave today in DC at the Wilson Center. The full webcast of the event is now online here, so I won’t attempt to summarize the event in full, but wanted to make three quick points on issues that I found to be of interest in the speech:
1. The role of the DHS Secretary on homeland security and counterterrorism issues. One of the key principles of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 was to establish the Secretary of DHS as the nation’s preeminent and accountable leader on homeland security and counterterrorism matters, in addition to being the chief executive of the constituent parts of DHS. The reality as to the DHS Secretary’s assertion of that role has evolved episodically in the last decade, with officials in the White House or in other cabinet agencies sometimes asserting aspects of that authority. I thought that Sec. Johnson’s remarks were very strong in implicitly reasserting the preeminent role for the DHS Secretary, particularly with respect to his discussion of issues such as the evolving terrorist threat, both overseas (with a notable emphasis on Syria) and within the U.S.
2. Relationship with Congress. As a former Senate staffer, Sec. Johnson’s remarks on his prospective relationship with Congress left me optimistic about his ability to work with Congress in a constructive way, particularly with respect to the two overriding legislative priorities for DHS: immigration reform and cyber security legislation. He mentioned doing unscheduled “drop by” visits earlier this week with a number of members of Congress – a level of direct and personal outreach that if sustained will help to overcome some of the barriers to getting things done on the legislative front. He also acknowledged that Congress still needs to deal with its long-fragmented oversight structure on homeland security issues, and that at some point he will have to have a discussion with members of Congress about realignment with respect to homeland security.
3. DHS vacancies and employee morale. Sec. Johnson discussed what he has been doing to address the issues of DHS vacancies, highlighting the existing nominees (NPPD, Inspector General, CBP, USCIS, and Science & Technology) who were still awaiting Senate action, and noting that he was prioritizing efforts to find nominees for the remaining vacancies, mentioning the Intelligence & Analysis, ICE and CFO positions. He also briefly touched on the issue of employee morale, which he had indicated during his Senate confirmation process would be an immediate priority. If there had been open Q&A during the event, I was prepared to ask him about his initial observations on the root causes of such morale issues and if he had any initial thoughts on how to address such challenges. It is critical that this issue remains on the front burner; ultimately, the ability of any Secretary of DHS to accomplish his or her policy objectives is contingent on an effective and motivated career workforce that has trust in its first-level and senior leadership.
Overall, the event was a very insightful discussion with the new Secretary, with excellent questions from former Congresswoman Jane Harman, and one that leaves me optimistic about the leadership of the Department in the coming years.