My Interview with Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano currently serves as the President of the University of California System. Prior to her current post, she was the third Secretary of Homeland Security from 2009 until 2013 under President Barack Obama. She came to DHS after serving as the 21st Governor of Arizona and prior to that the Attorney General of Arizona, the first woman to hold all four positions mentioned here.


This is an excerpt of my interview, the entirety of which can be read in my forthcoming book on homeland security.

A perennial issue that arises concerns the way DHS deals with Congress. Particularly, with Congressional oversight and how fragmented it is. Why do you think that is the case? What can be done to ease the burden on the Executive Branch and departmental leadership?

JN: There is a role for Congressional oversight for any executive agency. The problem with DHS is that there is both too much and too little. Too many committees and subcommittees exercise jurisdiction over the Department. The members of those subcommittees, and in particular their staff, do not really have a good strategic overview of the Department and all of its myriad activities. The problem is that these staffers think their issue is the top, and only issue, for the Department. However, DHS has many missions, all of which require multi-tasking at any particular moment in time. During my time as DHS Secretary, I testified more than 55 times before Congress. Preparation for testimony alone takes a great deal of time. It requires preparation of a written statement, which requires staff time, the Secretary has to approve it, and the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) has final approval. Sometimes the deadlines were very unrealistic, reflecting the viewpoint that subcommittees should get priority over everything else. 

Now the exceptions are the two authorizing committees in the House and Senate, as well as the appropriations subcommittees see the whole Department. Those hearings were very wide ranging and could cover any topic and they provided useful oversight for the Congress and the public. Everything else was surplus. They took more resources than was beneficial.

Oversight is setup the way it is partially because it goes to issues of “turf” in the Congress that is zealously protected by the committees and subcommittees. Those battles were not solved in the haste to build DHS. Congress, particularly the House, has not had the leadership or will to address this issue even though every Secretary (of DHS) and others who know about the Department have all said that the oversight is too much and needs to be reformed.

The silo problem, especially pre-9/11, is partially the reason why DHS was formed. There were information sharing problems within the intelligence and national security community. Do you think DHS has alleviated some of those concerns? If so, what else can DHS do to diminish this problem?

JN: In terms of DHS’s creation, information sharing, particularly with respect to terrorism and counterterrorism, has improved. Mainly due to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and to some degree with the CIA. We have made some great strides in information sharing, although somewhat less so with the FBI. Part of that is because the country and the Executive Branch is working out who has primary jurisdiction over what, and the need to establish common depositories for information.

Janet Napolitano (Credit: Department of Homeland Security)

Janet Napolitano (Credit: Department of Homeland Security)

What do you see as DHS’s role in the larger Executive branch and the government overall. The Department has had a bit of a tortured path, and sometimes DHS is not seen by other agencies as an important or relevant agency. Do you think that is changing? What do you see the role of DHS going forward?

JN: DHS plays a critical role in very different areas. Obviously, it dominates the immigration and border security portfolios. The DOJ (Department of Justice) has some role, but immigration has never been a prioritized interest. Disaster management and response, has also been handed to DHS. Having both FEMA and the Coast Guard under one roof helps in that regard, although Congress may not have done that intentionally. Cybersecurity is a growing problem and the Department needs to develop its capacity. Cybersecurity is too fragmented in the Executive Branch. The NSA, FBI, and DHS all have large roles in cybersecurity, but exactly who has the lead and how information is shared is still an evolving topic. On the counterterrorism side, there exist a myriad of different players, so Congress was not able to locate all of that in one place.

Do you think it makes DHS’ work more challenging, particularly for counterterrorism, to intercept and investigate lone wolf actors and terrorists, such as the Boston Marathon bombers?

JN: In hindsight, I do not think the Boston Marathon bombing could have been prevented under any reasonable law enforcement or intelligence sharing protocol absent Russia giving us more information about the brothers, particularly them traveling in Russia. Lone wolfs, by their very nature, are almost impossible to detect and prevent. The challenge is the ability for immediate response and communities to be resilient in the face of a lone wolf episode. For example, the University of California, Santa Barbara had a lone wolf type incident with a mentally ill individual going on a shooting rampage. Could that have been prevented? Possibly if he was institutionalized, but absent that, you do not have law enforcement resources to watch everyone who may be capable of a lone wolf attack even if you know someone who might fit the personality to do such a thing.

You brought up the concept of resiliency. Resiliency is often a hard concept to explain. How would you explain it to someone not familiar with it?

JN: Basically, it is the ability to take a punch and get right back up again.

What does that look like in terms of DHS’s work?

JN: It depends. It is seen more frequently in the disaster response area. It is the ability to restore infrastructure and get people basic necessities first (power, food, water, healthcare), and then get the community operating again as quickly as possible. The most difficult type of situation is when you have a huge event like Hurricane Sandy where multiple communities are affected and thousands of people needing help simultaneously.

Turning to a more controversial topic – immigration. The United States has been dealing with the issue of unaccompanied minors for the last several months. In a recent interview you mentioned that DHS was criticized quite a bit about the number of deportations and removals over the past several years, but you stated that those criticizing DHS did not look at the whole picture under the Obama Administration. What would you want them to consider? What is the whole picture?*

JN: The average annual deportation number is 400,000. This number needs to be broken down into who is in that number. One of the changes under the Obama Administration was to move more ICE agents to border communities, and to initiate a process where Border Patrol would pick up border crossers and hand them to ICE for placement into removal proceedings. Therefore, the 400,000 includes those apprehended at the border and put into proceedings. That was not happening before my tenure as DHS Secretary. I believe people criticizing that number have a paradigm in mind that those people being deported have been here for decades with established families and jobs.

Long-term undocumented people are an infinitesimal part of those who are deported. The deportees includes those apprehended at the border, those with criminal records, or those who are apprehended in the context of committing another crime and law enforcement then turns them over to be removed from the country. You do not hear arguments concerning those categories. The next largest category are repeat immigration violators. Under the Obama administration we stopped business raids and made more concerted efforts to sanction employers who continually hired a lot of undocumented. We really tried to shift the administration more toward border violators, criminal offenders and repeat offenders.