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Lack Of Leaders Puts Strain On Homeland Security Department

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Lack Of Leaders Puts Strain On Homeland Security Department

National Security

Lack Of Leaders Puts Strain On Homeland Security Department

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Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is stepping down, leaving a big job open at the top of a big agency. And that's not all, 14 other top posts at Homeland Security are now vacant or soon will be. Many are being filled on a temporary basis.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle want the Obama administration to get busy filling those jobs, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The Department of Homeland Security was formed 11 years ago after the 9/11 attacks. Congress threw together 22 different federal agencies, from the Coast Guard to the Secret Service. The forced merger resulted in a huge and, some would say unwieldy, bureaucracy, charged with everything from patrolling the nations borders to responding to severe storms. None of which is made any easier by the lack of permanent leaders in some key positions.

Christian Beckner, deputy director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Institute, lists a few.

CHRISTIAN BECKNER: Customs and border protection, the role of commissioner for that has been vacant, filled by acting people for nearly a year and a half. You have the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at DHS which has been vacant, filled in an acting role for seven months now. And then the Office of the Inspector General in the department has been filled by somebody in an acting role since the beginning of 2011.

NAYLOR: And there are many more, including the number two post at the agency, deputy secretary. All in all, it's not a good situation says Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee.

REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: The Obama administration needs to make it a priority. It's one of the biggest agencies we have. It's got one of the lowest levels of morale on record based on the surveys. And when you have vacancies at the top, you have this vacuum that is unfulfilled and there is a total lack of leadership.

NAYLOR: On this there is rare bipartisan agreement. Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

SENATOR TOM CARPER: It is a bad situation. I call it executive branch Swiss cheese. And it's not that the people in these acting positions are inept or bad people, but there's a special stature that comes by Senate confirmation.

NAYLOR: And it's not only the stature and, more importantly, authority that comes with having a Senate confirmed leader in charge. The Homeland Security Institute's Beckner says the vacancies and temporary leaders don't so much affect the front line operations at the department.

BECKNER: What it does impede is the ability to sort of be anticipating what the next challenges are, and making the key policy and operational decisions about where they should be investing for the future, what policies should be put forward.

NAYLOR: And there's this. According to surveys by the Partnership for Public Service, Homeland Security ranks at the bottom of its list of the best places to work. The president of the nonprofit group, Max Stier, says that among other things, employees don't feel promotions at the department are based on merit.

MAX STIER: We should want and expect an employee group that is at least as good, at least as engaged as what you'd find in the private sector. And what the employees of the agency are telling the public, Congress, and the president is that the agency isn't giving them what they need to succeed in their jobs. And that's a real problem.

NAYLOR: Unlike elsewhere in the government, the vacancies at Homeland Security are not due to Senate roadblocks. Many of the posts don't require Senate confirmation. And while President Obama is working on a list of possible replacements for Napolitano, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Carper says the administration needs to get working on filling the other vacant posts, as well.

CARPER: We're six, seven, eight months past the last election and the administration has to bear down. They just need to crank it up. Just crank it up.

NAYLOR: Carper's committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing on the one nomination that has been submitted, that of Alejandro Mayorkas, to become deputy secretary. But if Mayorkas is confirmed, there will be a vacancy at his old job as head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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