Op Ed: Nobody's Home at Homeland Security

Nov 11, 2013 Issues: Oversight of DHS Management

President Obama recently announced the long-overdue nomination of Jeh Johnson, the former general counsel of the Defense Department, as the fourth secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. If confirmed, Mr. Johnson will immediately face a major obstacle: Over 40% of the department’s senior leadership positions are either vacant or have an “acting” placeholder. This means that nearly half of the top positions at the third-largest agency in the U.S. government aren’t filled—a problem that has impaired its operations and speaks volumes about this administration’s commitment to homeland security.

The positions didn’t become vacant all at once. The problem has snowballed as the Obama administration has failed to fill open spots in various parts of the department for many months, and in some cases for years.

Despite the president’s claims that the “border is secure,” Customs and Border Protection—the DHS agency responsible for securing the border, regulating international trade and immigration—has not had a Senate-confirmed commissioner during the entire Obama presidency. After a recess appointment expired at the end of 2011, the president waited more than a year and a half before nominating someone in August. Customs and Border Protection now has its fourth acting leader of the Obama presidency.

The situation at Immigration and Customs Enforcement is not much better. When Director John Morton resigned this summer, he was replaced by John Sandweg on an acting basis. Mr. Sandweg is a former political operative with no law-enforcement experience. Since his installment, the administration has not announced a nominee, leaving one of the largest federal law-enforcement agencies without credible, confirmed leadership.

Perhaps the most dire leadership vacuum at DHS is the lack of steady, long-term management in cyber and national security. While rogue nations continue to target everything from Wall Street to our energy industry, and terrorist groups continue to plot against the U.S., both the assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications and the undersecretary for intelligence and analysis have been under acting leadership for nearly a year.

The vacancies extend to DHS financial management. Undersecretary for Management Rafael Borras, who is now acting deputy secretary, is currently without a chief financial officer. Earlier this month, Chief Financial Officer Peggy Sherry left DHS for the IRS. The department’s antiquated financial systems need modernization, and this turnover will hamper progress and waste more money.

There is also no watchdog on the premises, as Homeland Security has been without a confirmed inspector general since February 2011. Deputy Inspector General Charles Edwards, who is currently running the IG’s office, faces allegations of misconduct from a bipartisan Senate panel, including misusing official resources and exerting undue influence on investigations. Sens. Claire McCaskill and Ron Johnson are currently investigating these claims, raised by several whistleblowers.

To complicate matters even further, the nominee for deputy secretary of DHS, Alejandro Mayorkas, is being held up by Senate Republicans. They’re doing so because the inspector general’s office is investigating Mr. Mayorkas for allegations of misusing the Immigrant Investor Visa program, which he oversees and continues to lead, while he continues to run U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In other words, the nominee for the No. 2 position at DHS is currently under investigation by the DHS Inspector General’s office, which itself does not have anyone in its top post and whose current leader is also under investigation. You read that right.

Some claim that Senate gridlock has played a role in delaying nominations, including the efforts of some Republican senators to delay nominations until survivors of the 2012 Benghazi attack are allowed to appear before Congress. But this has not been a major factor. For many of these positions, including the inspector general and the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the president has taken many months or years to nominate someone. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has shown a complete disregard for the Federal Vacancy Reform Act of 1998, a law passed by Congress that limits the amount of time someone can be in an acting position.

Anyone who has ever worked for a company knows that leadership deficits and turnover don’t help an organization run smoothly. For DHS to carry out its core mission of protecting the American people, the department needs consistent management and a strong leader who understands how to handle a sprawling agency, and who has a commitment to enforcing the law and protecting the American people.

As Jeh Johnson goes through the nomination process, he must commit to filling the gaping holes in the department’s top ranks. While DHS is the newest department in the executive branch, it carries out arguably its most essential function. It deserves real leadership, not empty chairs.

Mr. McCaul, a Republican congressman from Texas, is the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

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