'What Our Department Is All About'

An Interview with Janet Napolitano

Actually, everybody has the lead. I continue to stress some very simple steps that can help us slow or prevent the transmission of the virus: hand washing, coughing in your sleeve, and staying home if you're sick.

Proceedings : What if an entire unit of first responders is incapacitated? Are we prepared for that? Is that where the department comes in?

Secretary Napolitano : Obviously, we have some worst-case scenarios built into our planning. Much of the preparation and planning will be done at the local level. I just met with the international convention of fire chiefs and gave them the same advice. Think through what happens if you have a lot of absenteeism among your first-responder ranks. Are you set up to handle additional overtime? Do you have some backup? The mayors and governors of the country are going to have a major role to play in a worst-case-scenario type of situation.

Proceedings : Changing gears, if I may, I'm sure you'll be the first to admit that you got off on the wrong foot with many of the nation's veterans by releasing what's become known as the "Right-Wing Extremist Report" earlier this year, citing returning combat veterans as potential recruits for right-wing terrorists. How could that have happened, knowing full well that it would insult most veterans?

Secretary Napolitano : Well, it was certainly not intended to insult veterans, and indeed some groups, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, acknowledged that it was merely a situational awareness report. It was just an assessment, not an accusation, so it was not intended that way. But it was a poorly crafted product that went out early in our administration, before processes were in place to prevent that from happening again. Our initiatives are to move forward very proactively and positively with veterans and veterans' groups.

We have about 40,000 veterans among our employees, and I have committed to having at least 50,000 by 2012. We're conducting job fairs, actively recruiting among the veterans community to fill jobs here at DHS because it's a great pool of potential employees. These are people who are trained, who are committed to service to their country. And that's what our department is all about.

The number-two person in our department, the deputy secretary, is herself a veteran. The number-three person, the undersecretary, is himself a veteran. So we have a huge veterans' presence, and I'm looking forward to good relations in the months and years to come. 

Proceedings : As you know, the Coast Guard has played a major role in the department since it was established and even well before that. Given the current budget climate, what can the Coast Guard look forward to in the immediate future regarding roles and missions, and having the right type and right number of assets to do the job?

Secretary Napolitano : You are absolutely right. The Coast Guard has played a major role in Homeland Security since our inception. And as you know, there are stresses in every element of the government now because of the recession, and tax dollars are precious. I am working very hard to make sure that we do not compromise our maritime security, that the Coast Guard has the tools and the equipment it needs for those purposes. Its mission, as your question implies, has broadened over time.

For example, right now we have missions involving drug interdiction in the Caribbean, we've had missions involving piracy off of the coast of eastern Africa, Somalia, and we have an Arctic mission as well. So the Coast Guard has been given lots of duties and responsibilities, and we're going to make sure the service has the tools necessary to fulfill them.

Proceedings : As far as homeland security goes, where do the Coast Guard's roles and missions end and the Navy's begin—and vice-versa?

Secretary Napolitano : There's a lot of coordination with the U.S. Navy. Navy ships and aircraft are all part of our counter-drug efforts in the Caribbean and in the eastern Pacific. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay is a crucial logistics operating base for us. And the Navy is a key partner in our planning for such events as a mass migration, for example, from Haiti or from Cuba.

Proceedings : How has the complexion of border security changed, especially in light of the recent replacement of Mexican border personnel with Mexican soldiers?

Secretary Napolitano : Both countries are working very hard together to make the border safe and secure. We have deployed a substantial amount of our federal resources there, both boots on the ground plus technology, like license plate readers plus canine teams, and we are looking to do even more. The Mexican federal government has replaced its customs group and doubled its size on its side of the border. And we both have a joint interest in this fight being waged against the drug cartels in Mexico. They are large, they're organized, they're ingrained, and they literally have footprints in hundreds of communities across the United States. So this is not just an issue about Mexico, it's an issue about us as well. We're working very closely with President [Felipe] Calderon and his administration on all of these efforts, but particularly the efforts right at the border.

Proceedings : In the event of an emergency situation, how are efforts coordinated between Northern Command and DHS? Who reports to whom? Who'll be in charge?

Secretary Napolitano : It depends on the scenario, so let me just tell you generally how it works. First of all, the administration routinely holds Cabinet-level exercises to go through different scenarios. General [Gene] Renuart from NORTHCOM has also been around that table.

Those exercises are helpful in talking through who's going to have the lead on various issues and even what issues we might anticipate. Depending on where we are, the governor of the affected state is going to have an important role, so it's not just federal. I'll give you an example of something that happened on my watch. We had a situation where an unidentified small plane took off from Canada and was flying south. It flew over Madison, Wisconsin, and was headed toward St. Louis. General Renuart and NORTHCOM were actually tracking this plane. CBP [Customs and Border Protection] planes, which were our planes, were flying wing in part because they're slower, so they could fly at the pace of this small plane. The general and I were on the phone together during that evening. He was keeping me apprised of what they were doing and the decisions they were making. One of the things I was doing was reaching out to the governor of Missouri so he knew what was happening. So, it's not so much who's in charge as it is everybody recognizing their lane and coordinating between those lanes.

Proceedings : What changes are being made to better secure U.S. ports?

Secretary Napolitano : Well, a number of things. One is, of course, the TWIC [transportation worker identification credential] cards we instituted for port workers. These are basically security identity cards for those port workers who have access to sensitive areas within the ports. We're working very closely at the Coast Guard and Navy level with respect to transportation of material in and out of the ports. We also have several ports that are pilot projects for having a fusion center law enforcement presence right there at the port. One would be Seattle and another would be Charleston where we are doing that. And so those are a few of the things that are happening right at the ports. 

Proceedings : Let's talk about Canada and that country's counterpart to DHS. How does that interaction work?

Secretary Napolitano : My counterpart is the Minister of Public Safety, Peter Van Loan, and we have a lot of interaction. Some of the contact is just as simple as a phone call, but we also have regularly scheduled formal meetings. In the meantime, as particular issues arise, we deal with them on an issue-by-issue basis. We've had an issue at a particular port in upstate New York that we've been working on with the Canadians. And we are supporting their security planning for the 2010 winter Olympics, which are going to be in Vancouver, British Columbia, by standing up an EOC [emergency operations center] right across the border. We're also making sure the border crossing at Blaine, Washington, is prepared to take additional traffic connected with the games.

Proceedings : Do you have a counterpart in Mexico as well?

Secretary Napolitano : I do. His name is Fernando Gomez-Mont, the Mexican Interior Minister, and we work with him on the same basis. We have regular formal meetings, but it's the day-to-day interaction dealing with particular issues that is of special value.

Proceedings : Beyond Canada and Mexico, what's being done internationally to secure the U.S. homeland?

Secretary Napolitano : Oh, so much. One of the somewhat surprising things I encountered when I became the secretary, because it's called the Department of Homeland Security, was how much international work is being done here. But I've quickly realized that if you don't start your security process until you get to the geographic boundary of the United States, often times you're too late. And so we do a lot of work with our allies in Western Europe—for example, agreements on traveler information and sharing science and technology information related to security. We work all across the globe. I was recently in Pakistan talking about issues involving travelers out of that country, obviously of particular interest to us, and border security and sharing some technical assistance with respect to security along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. So our reach, although we are Homeland Security, is broad, and we recognize that the organization has a truly important international component as well.

Proceedings : The department is a very young but expansive agency. How has it evolved and progressed since its establishment?

Secretary Napolitano : I think it's a rapidly evolving department. And let me just start here by saying this department was established pursuant to 9/11. Counterterrorism remains the top mission. That's why many of the men and women joined this department in the first place. The mission takes many forms, but we always keep in mind that the attack on our homeland is a primary motivator for this department. You're right, we are very large. We're the third-largest department of the federal government now, 200,000-plus employees. We have a very broad set of mission areas, and we've evolved in every way from simply administration to really now beginning to, I think, define our missions more precisely than when we started.

Proceedings : What can you tell us about DHS's efforts that would make us feel safer from a terrorist attack and not keep us up at night?

Secretary Napolitano : I'll tell you that just in terms of the processes and rules we have established with respect to travelers and visas, most of the 9/11 terrorists would not even have gotten into the country.


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