Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano gives her farewell speech Aug. 27 at the National Press Club in Washington. Napolitano will be leaving the administration to become chancellor of the University of California. (Saul Loeb / AFP)
WASHINGTON — Outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that her successor must act quickly to prepare for a major cyber attack.
“Our country will, at some point, face a major cyber event that will have a serious effect on our lives, our economy, and the everyday functioning of our society,” Napolitano warned during her farewell address at the National Press Club.
“While we have built systems, protections and a framework to identify attacks and intrusions, share information with the private sector and across government, and develop plans and capabilities to mitigate the damage, more must be done, and quickly,” she said.
Napolitano, who was Arizona’s governor before serving as Homeland Security secretary for the last four and a half years, is leaving to become head of the University of California system.
She said her successor, who has not yet been chosen, also may face more natural disasters. The Department of Homeland Security includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which brings aid to communities when there are hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and other major disasters.
“You also will have to prepare for the increasing likelihood of more weather-related events of a more severe nature as a result of climate change, and continue to build the capacity to respond to potential disasters in far flung regions of the country occurring at the same time,” Napolitano said in what she called “an open letter” to the next secretary.
She said her replacement will have to continue to lead the massive department through tough fiscal times, including the impact of the automatic budget cuts imposed on federal agencies by Congress.
The department, created a decade ago in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, includes FEMA, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection and the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications.
Napolitano said the job is stressful and she advised the next secretary that, “You will need a large bottle of Advil.” But she also said the job is one of the most rewarding in Washington.
“What you do here matters to the lives of people all across our great nation, and your decisions affect them in direct, tangible ways,” she said. “You make sure their families are safe from terrorist threats, that their local first responders have equipment and training and funding, and that when disaster strikes, people who have lost everything are given food, shelter, and hope.”
She credited the department’s 240,000 employees with helping her lead the agency through the swine flu pandemic, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, drug cartel violence along the Southwest border, and numerous terrorist plots and threats including the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon in April.
During Napolitano’s tenure, the agency managed 325 federally declared disasters, including Hurricance Sandy, the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history.
“Looking back over the past four and a half years, I can say that if there is one take-away, one object lesson and core operating principle that I’ve learned and embraced as secretary, it is this: In a world of evolving threats, the key to our success is the ability to be flexible and agile, and adapt to changing circumstances on the ground — whether that is across the globe or here at home,” Napolitano said.
Among her unfinished business is immigration reform.
Napolitano touted her department’s efforts to strengthen border security and her policy to focus efforts on catching and deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal records. She also defended a controversial program that stopped the deportation of undocumented immigrants brought here as children. That program, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, gives young immigrants who meet certain criteria a two-year provisional legal status to remain in the United States.
“In just its first year, over half-a-million individuals have requested deferred action, and after a thorough review of each of those cases, including a background check, 430,000 requests have already been approved, allowing these young people to continue to contribute to the country they call home,” Napolitano said.
But she said a more permanent solution is needed for them and for all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
“DACA, of course, is no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform, which is the only way to face the longstanding problems with our immigration system,” she said.
Erin Kelly writes for the Gannett Washington Bureau.