Homeland Security

What Do We Want In A Secretary of Homeland Security?

By Paul Rosenzweig
Thursday, December 8, 2016, 1:28 PM

With the news, today, that President-Elect Trump has settled on retired Marine General John F. Kelly as his nominee to be the next Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, it seems useful to ask what qualties it is we want in the Secreatary of the Department (someone that the Department, in a quasi-military way, identifies as "S1").  The ideal Secretary would have a comprehensive knowledge of a variety of topics and a wide-range of personal and managerial characteristics.  To be clear, this mythical person does not exists, but as we measure Gen. Kelly (or anyone else) for the job consider this.  Among the substantive areas of expertise a Secretary needs are:

  • Border security -- More than 400 million people cross our borders every year.  Most are people we wish to welcome; a few are not.  Understanding that problem is likely the principal goal of DHS.  Likewise DHS screened roughly 2.5 million containers of goods annually (these are rough numbers, of course).
  • Trade -- At the same time the border is being secured, the Secretary has to manage a system that permits trade goods and visitors to enter our country for lawful purposes.  A world without imports and exports would be nearly impossible to imagine, and every 30 seconds added to screening procedures translates, almost directly, into hundreds of millions of dollars in costs.
  • Transportation security -- TSA is everybody's least favorite federal agency.  The Secretary needs to know how screening works; and how it doesn't or he won't understand why the public don't like him/her.
  • Immigration -- USCIS and ICE manage an immigration system that processes more than 250,000 deportations annually, and also processesed more than 700,000 naturalizations, as well as asylum and refugee admissions and sundry other adjustments of immigration status.  That is a large and complex operation based on a very rococo set of laws.
  • Counter-terrorism -- Perhaps the prime mission for DHS from a public perspective is preventing terrorist attacks on the United States.  This requires a knowledge of terrorist trends and activities as well as a robust understanding of intelligence collection and analysis.
  • Law Enforcement -- DHS has more law enforcement officers under its command than are in the FBI. 
  • Grants -- DHS gives out large grants to State and Local agencies.  Understanding the law and process for this is part of the job.
  • State and Local and Private Sector -- More to the point, while DHS is operative at the Federal level, a significant fraction of its work involves State, local, and private sector partners who have their own needs and interests that need understanding.  Particularly as it addesses infrastructure protection, a knowledge of private sector economic incentives and imperatives would help.
  • International -- Homeland security often begins overseas.  DHS has more civilian personnel overseas than any other agency save State.  You'd be surprised how frequently the Secretary travels internationally.
  • Emergency preparedness and management -- Hurricanes and tornadoes!  Katrina!  Need I say more?  In time of crisis the Secretary will have to capable of responding and managing FEMA.
  • Maritime Domain Awareness -- The Coast Guard has responsibility for all the near-ocean areas off the United States, for everything from law enforcement to trade to safety to navigation aids to disaster response.  Happily, the Commandant can do most of the work on this one -- but not all of it.
  • Cyber -- The newest, hotest part of infrastructure protection is in the cyber domain.  Hopefully, the Secretary knows a bit from a byte.

Of course, beyond the substantive expertise, a Secretary needs a host of varied managerial skills and personal qualities.  Here are a few that seem relevant:

  • Budget, Procurement, Personnel, and Financial Management -- DHS has a top-line proposed budget for FY 2017 of more than $66 billion.  It has more than 200,000 employees.  The Secretary (assisted by the Deputy Secretary -- "S2") needs to manage one of the largest enterprises in the Federal government.
  • Leadership and Motivation -- It's well known that morale at DHS is not terribly high.  The 200,000+ employees need to be encouraged, guided and led.
  • Patience and Flexibility -- Despite its highly operational character, DHS is not a military organization.  Change comes slowly and often in ways that are unanticipated.  Civilians employees and stakeholders have their own equities and interests.
  • Public Speaking -- The Secretary is the public face of homeland security.  He or she needs to be an accomplished public speaker and advocate for the Department's interests and priorities and, more importantly, those of the Administration in which s/he serves.
  • Integrity and Candor -- Perhaps it goes without saying but the Secretary (as much as any member of the Cabinent) will be subject to immense pressures of a political, economic, and professional nature.  Strength of character is, perhaps, the single most important characteristic necessary.

As one can see, the list is daunting.  The perfect Secretary is a mythical beast -- no single person can have all of these capabilities.  Which ones predominate will often reflect the priorities that a President places on the Department.  And those areas of expertise where the S1 is lacking really need to be filled by a capable S2 subordinate or, in some cases, a component head.  We should all wish Gen. Kelly the best of luck ... he has a daunting task ahead.