Janet Napolitano, America’s Homeland Security Secretary, is leaving the bureaucratic tangles of Washington. Instead, Napolitano will be taking the reins of the University of California–the largest public university system in the United States and, we’re guessing, a far less stressful gig than overseeing Homeland Security’s sprawling collection of agencies and directorates. She’s a surprise choice; the University of California normally hires academics to helm the university, but the school system likes her non-traditional background.
“While some may consider her to be an unconventional choice, Secretary Napolitano is without a doubt the right person at the right time to lead this incredible university,” regent Sherry Lansing said in a statement. “She will bring fresh eyes and a new sensibility–not only to UC, but to all of California. She will stand as a vigorous advocate for faculty, students and staff at a time when great changes in our state, and across the globe, are presenting as many opportunities as challenges.”
So what did Napolitano learn while helming Homeland Security, which some call dysfunctional and which has been accused by politicians of needlessly wasting money while performing the vital roles of providing border defenses, immigration services, emergency relief, and transportation security?
Here’s a short list of the greatest hits.
Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona and a Democrat, took the helm of DHS in early 2009. Much of the criticism thrown at Napolitano during the appointment process centered on her looks and sexuality; the non-married, middle-aged politician was regularly accused of being a closet lesbian by right wing talk radio. Some of the criticism even came from within her own party, with former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell saying Napolitano was a perfect fit because “for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19-20 hours a day to it.” But despite sniping that wasn’t related to her job performance, Napolitano went on to significantly improve DHS’s legendary inefficiencies. The agency also did well dealing with a slate of embarassing scandals indicative of a dysfunctional workplace culture.
During Napolitano’s tenure, Homeland Security foiled the printer bomb plot and worked efficiently in the wake of the Boston Marathon terror attack. In 2010, in fact, the Department warned of similar bombs to the type that the Tsarnaev brothers used. While counterterrorism operations on domestic soil are a sprawling mess, fusion centers have gone a long way toward streamlining communications between local police departments, state police, the FBI, and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies on issues regarding terrorism, human trafficking, and organized crime.
Terrorism may grab more headlines, but natural disasters impact America far more than a few yahoos with grievances ever could. One of the biggest lessons from Hurricane Katrina was that FEMA, the DHS agency tasked with natural disaster response, was incompetent at offering timely basic services to disaster victims. Under Napolitano’s tenure, FEMA reforms have continued and DHS has continued to work with politicians to improve the agency. While FEMA has a long way to go, the agency’s improved disaster response during Sandy, the Oklahoma tornadoes, and recent flooding is a significant improvement.
But Napolitano’s greatest achievement, in our opinion, is helping to undo the endless maze of bureaucratic requirements for tourism and business that Homeland Security created. It’s important to remember that the creation of DHS was a direct result of post-September 11 security mania: The newly created Cabinet-level department combined a small zoo of pre-existing federal agencies, rush-created a new bureaucracy to oversee tens of thousands of employees, and expected everyone to play nice. In 2012, Napolitano spearheaded bureaucratic projects to put more effort on economic security and facilitate easier cooperation with DHS requirements for businesses–a sorely needed move.
[Top image: Department of Homeland Security / Article images: @nbcnightlynews]