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Napolitano earns respect in one of Washington’s toughest jobs

Aug. 15, 2012 - 11:07AM   |  
By ERIN KELLY   |   Comments
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano delivers an address on the state of the nation's and the world's aviation security system at the National Press Club in 2010. Napolitano has drawn praise for her handling of the Homeland Security Department.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano delivers an address on the state of the nation's and the world's aviation security system at the National Press Club in 2010. Napolitano has drawn praise for her handling of the Homeland Security Department. (Astrid Riecken / Getty)

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After more than 3½ years of running the agency that protects Americans from terrorist attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano thinks about heading home to Arizona.

“It’s certainly in my mind,” the 54-year-old former Arizona governor said during an interview in her “bat cave,” decorated with a Mexican saddle, opera posters and a baseball signed by Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.

“I don’t know if or when. But I left a lot of my stuff in Arizona. And I’m still a registered voter there.”

It’s not clear whether her storage boxes will be unpacked anytime soon.

If President Obama wins a second term, most Washington observers believe he will ask Napolitano to stay on as head of the government’s third-largest department. Napolitano won’t say what she would do.

But whether she is on the job for a few more months or four more years, members of Congress who oversee her department say Napolitano has already made her mark on the young agency. They credit her with increasing deportations of illegal immigrants, restoring the image of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and helping create a new airport screening system that has prevented thousands of potentially dangerous people from boarding U.S.-bound planes at foreign airports.

Congressional leaders who oversee her department say she has earned the respect of lawmakers from both parties, although she continues to draw fierce criticism from Southwest Republicans over her handling of immigration and border issues.

The sprawling department, created nearly 10 years ago in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, combined 22 separate federal departments and agencies into one. Its 240,000 employees include members of the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and the Transportation Security Administration.

Napolitano is the third person and first woman to head the male-dominated agency.

Republican Rep. Peter King of New York credits the Democratic secretary with strengthening cybersecurity efforts, improving intelligence-sharing among government agencies, increasing deportations of illegal immigrants and helping make FEMA effective again in responding to natural disasters.

“Allowing for the fact that she and I obviously have some political and philosophical differences, I think she’s done a very effective job,” said King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “She’s smart, hard-working and knows what she’s doing.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Napolitano has helped prevent another Sept. 11-style attack on the United States in part by strengthening aviation security and developing sophisticated databases to identify potential terrorists.

“Last year, the Department of Homeland Security, under Janet, stopped more than 3,100 suspected terrorists from getting on planes headed to the United States,” said Lieberman, I-Conn. “The department has come a long way under her leadership.”

Lieberman was referring to data released in December by Customs and Border Protections that agents used pre-departure screening systems — implemented during Napolitano’s time as secretary — to stop more than 3,100 people from boarding U.S.-bound aircraft at foreign airports in fiscal 2011 for national security reasons.

But Napolitano also has drawn intense criticism on the divisive issue of immigration. One of her harshest critics is Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Smith decried Napolitano’s recent announcement that some young immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children and do not have criminal records can defer any kind of deportation proceedings against them for at least two years.

“The Department of Homeland Security under Secretary Napolitano’s watch looks more like a customer service agency for illegal immigrants than an agency with the responsibility to enforce our immigration laws,” Smith said. “Secretary Napolitano has failed the American people by consistently ignoring our immigration laws and putting illegal immigrants first.”

King agrees that the Obama administration’s deportation policies amount to “amnesty” for some illegal immigrants. But he also credits Napolitano for deporting a record number of illegal immigrants — a fact that has sparked criticism from immigrant rights’ groups.

The Department of Homeland Security deported nearly 400,000 during fiscal 2011, the highest number of deportations in U.S. history. That’s double the annual average for President George W. Bush’s first term and about 30 percent higher than the average for his second term, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Napolitano said DHS must focus more and more of its limited resources on immigrants who are a threat to public safety, such as those with serious criminal records and repeat border-crossers. In 2011, 55 percent of those deported were convicted criminals — the highest percentage in nearly a decade, according to DHS.

“I think we’ve done smart immigration enforcement,” she said. “It’s not just the number of deportations, but who we’ve deported. I think we’ve been fair.”

Napolitano lists the changes in deportation policy as one of her major accomplishments.

Among other successes she cited were reducing illegal Southwest border crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years, strengthening counterterrorism efforts, creating a national system to detect and thwart cybersecurity threats, and “fixing” FEMA to restore its ability to work effectively with states in responding to natural disasters. FEMA’s reputation was badly damaged in 2005 after what was widely viewed as its poor response in bringing aid to Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans.

“This is a fascinating job because you rarely in your career build a large institution like DHS,” she said.

Napolitano said there is still much left to do, including expanding experimental programs nationwide to allow pre-screened travelers to spend less time in airport security lines.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Napolitano “inherited a department that was really fragmented, and she has had to bring it together.”

Still, Lieberman and Napolitano say there is more work to be done to build a truly united department out of nearly two dozen merged agencies.

“There has been an uptick in the morale of DHS workers in the years that Janet has been secretary, but the morale is still relatively low there compared to other federal agencies,” Lieberman said, citing a recent federal survey in which DHS ranked 33 out of 37 agencies for job satisfaction.

Napolitano said her experience as Arizona’s governor had a big impact on how she has approached the job.

“As governor, you get used to managing crises on a daily basis,” she said.

Still, as DHS secretary, the nature of the crises can be much more dramatic, whether it’s the swine flu pandemic of 2009 or terrorists seeking to blow up U.S. planes with explosives in their underwear.

Napolitano receives daily briefings from the intelligence division of her department, making her aware of any potential threats against the United States.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a burden, but it is a huge responsibility,” Napolitano said. “The security of the country is what I think of when I go to bed at night and when I get up in the morning.”

Erin Kelly reports for The Arizona Republic.

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