Janet Napolitano dove into the Congressional Hearing pool today making her first appearance as DHS Secretary before the House Homeland Security Committee. The nearly three hour session (which included two recesses for floor votes) was as much a listening session as it was a “listing” session where Members gave her their respective thoughts and concerns. Outlined below are some summations and notable news items that I took away from today’s session:

Napolitano’s Performance
Just like her confirmation hearing in early January before the US Senate’s Homeland Committee, she was cool, calm, collected and enormously prepared for everything that Members brought up. She also demonstrated her “quick on her feet” nature when responding to Rep. Dent’s (R-PA) question on whether workers in colonial garb who tend to mules that pull canal boats should have to TWIC cards. (He even brought pictures to share!) She didn’t take the bait and dealt with the issue in a respectable manner.

Probably the best summation of her performance came from an observation that Rep. Harman (D-CA) shared of one of her fellow Committee Members at the Hearing’s close: “She’s a well trained lawyer that can speak to the general public.”

Mexico & the Escalating Drug Wars
The deteriorating conditions along the US Southern border with the ongoing battles between Mexican authorities and the drug cartels was the issue raised the most by the Committee’s membership. The fact that the new Secretary had hands-on experience with the areas and issues involved made her responses that much more compelling. Stating that the Administration has pledged its support to Mexican President Calderone in the fight against the cartels, the Secretary shared that she has been in touch with local sheriffs and other authorities to keep abreast of what is happening on a local level. Everyone recognized the seriousness of the situation with Rep. Pascrell (D-NJ) expressing his concern that the affected Mexican areas become like the terror breeding sites in mountainous areas in Pakistan.

Congressional Oversight
Both sides of the aisle expressed their concerns over the Congressional oversight demands that Congress makes of DHS. Sec. Napolitano pledged her willingness to work with the Congress on all of the homeland issues but did not offer any specific guidance on how oversight should be organized. Interestingly enough, she did offer some gut-wrenching statistics about DHS’ appearances before the House in the last session of Congress.

• DHS attended/supported 269 Congressional hearings held by the House. Of these, 126 were for the House Homeland Committee (and its Subcommittees); 111 hearings were held by other House Committees; and 32 hearings were held before House Appropriators.

Future of FEMA

While she was questioned by at least three different Members about her thoughts on FEMA remaining inside DHS, Sec. Napolitano declined to offer her opinion on the subject other than to reinforce her pledge at her confirmation hearing to work with the organization she has and make it better. She did offer that she had not spoken to the President about his preferences on the subject and wanted to get his guidance on the matter. Rep. Cuellar (D-TX) shared that Rep. Oberstar (D-MN) was going to introduce legislation either today or some time this week to remove FEMA from DHS, fulfilling his pledge to so from some months back. Rep. Oberstar is the Chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee which also has some oversight responsibilities over FEMA.

The Secretary also offered that central to FEMA’s success is its leadership and operational functions – not its placement on an organization chart. She also went at lengths to stress the fact that FEMA is not a first responder organization and that as a nation we needed to carefully examine our expectations of the agency to be up and operating in an instant.

Cargo Scanning Mandates
With candor that would have probably had her predecessors as Secretary drawn and quartered before the Committee, Secretary Napolitano said that the congressionally- imposed 2012 mandates for 100% scanning of maritime cargo “is not going to work.” She shared that there are hundreds of international agreements that need to be put in place first “and under the current state of the program I don’t see it happening.”

Read what my friend and colleague David Olive has to say on that one.

It wouldn’t be a homeland security hearing if the issue of interoperability was not brought up. Members continued to express their concerns about where we are on this critical issue. In addressing these questions, the Secretary offered some interesting points including:

• The need to take a fresh look at the DHS Office of Emergency Communications;
• DHS, working with states and local governments, need to help determine who should be interoperable with whom (for example, is it just first responders – what about computers?);
• As governor of Arizona, her state used DHS monies to purchase mobile communications vans to provide a communications “patch” to those areas impacted by emergency conditions to ensure communications between responding parties. She shared that she saw the same practice being used last week in Kentucky during her visit to review response efforts following the devastating ice storms;
• She also wanted a fresh look at what technologies are really needed to make interoperability happen

When questioned by new Committee Member Rep Himes (D-CT) on how DHS is working interoperability issues in his state which has counties but has no organized, central county governments, the Secretary expressed her surprise at this type of governmental arrangement and pledged to get back to him. Rep. Himes certainly didn’t seem to be trying to trip her up with a trick question, but the example of his state’s organization demonstrates the complexity of dealing with this issue.

Information Sharing
In answering questions on how tied in she and DHS were to the nation’s intelligence networks and the level of information sharing going on among them, the Secretary offered that she receives a daily briefing from the FBI, the respective intelligence agencies, as well as the President’s Daily Security Brief.

Rep. Harman (D-CA), the Committee’s and by far the House’s most engaged Member on information sharing issues, observed that while DHS has made improvements to information sharing over time, its Information & Analysis Division is still a “stovepipe” when it comes to sharing information with states and locals. She encouraged the Secretary and the Administration to “appoint a cop to lead it.”

Rep. Harman also unloaded on DHS’ National Applications Office. Commenting that it was still “operating at a weak level,” she thought the entire office and its use of military satellites for domestic purposes was “a mistake;” existing laws are working in these areas and to “please shut it down.”

In terms of Fusion Centers, the Secretary pledged her support to them, offered that she would speaking at the National Conference for Fusion Centers in two weeks, and that she was going to do everything she could to “pump them up.”

Only one Member, Rep. Souder, asked about REAL-ID. With diplomatic candor, the Secretary shared that the entire program “was stood up with no consultation with state governors;” “had lots of implementation issues;” and, “had no money behind it either.” Speaking as a former governor who had to deal with this issue, her authority on it was unquestioned or unchallenged.

There were several questions about grants, specifically making sure that risk-based approaches were used to address the most pressing needs by Rep. Pascrell (D-NJ)
Pascrell pressed the Secretary to “commit that this Administration will not cut grant funds from the first responder programs.”

Secretary Napolitano pledged that she was more than supportive of those programs and shared that she and the Obama Administration would be operating under the assumption that there would no cuts to the programs. She then offered that the entire Department as well as Congress needs to look to at the long-term sustainability for funding for jobs, training and other grant funded efforts. She offered words to the effect of, “I fear that grant programs are not written with sustainability in mind and I’m looking to see how we look to and measure long-term success.”

Border/Secure Border Initiative

In the questioning offered by Rep. Carney (D-PA) who shared his disappointment with the progress DHS had made with the SBI Program and in particular P-28 (which occurred in Arizona), he asked the Secretary to outline her thoughts on what needed to be fixed. In response, Sec. Napolitano said any border solution required boots on the ground as well as technology that works as promised. She offered that she and members of her leadership team were looking at what the vendor promised, how bidding for the program occurred and how things were selected.

Chairman Thompson joined the line of questioning and asked how often DHS communicated with her about the P-28 Project while she served as governor of the test area. The Secretary offered that there were some discussions but it was mostly a federal job. She went further and said that the state was not part of the design, the selection process for technologies for deployment or in the decision on the length of the contracts.

Wrap up Thoughts
Some of the usual things that occur at this type of hearings took place (i.e. invitations from Members to come to their respective districts; assertions that a lab in their district has a solution for that problem; pledges by the Secretary to travel to the various districts to see things first hand; brief hearing recesses for floor votes, etc.) but to sum it up, let’s just say some of the same stuff that always happens happened to occur.

In addition to those issues outlined above, other topics included cyber security, the importance of vigilance against terrorism, FEMA accountability, etc., but what was most notable to me about today’s Hearing were two things:

• The loss of some senior Committee Member voices; and
• The addition of some new Member voices.

It’s always good to get fresh perspectives to homeland issues, and the fact that there are a number of new faces and voices to the Committee is a very healthy thing.

That being said, the loss of Members like Rep. Langevin (D-RI), the smartest Member in Congress on the issue of cyber security, is a real blow to the Committee. I recognize and respect that Members move on from some Committee assignments to rise up and take other positions that are of additional interest to them and their districts. There are certainly smart and able-bodied persons to step up to fill their spots, and I’m confident that Rep. Clarke (D-NY) who succeeds Rep. Langevin as Chair of the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cyber Security, and Science and Technology will do a good job. But when you have people as good as him on the most pressing issue facing our nation’s infrastructure (cyber security), it’s a helluva void to fill and I thought his loss to the Committee was evident today.

As for the Hearing itself and Sec. Napolitano’s first laps in the Congressional Hearing pool, she did great. Overall, there were no fireworks but then again, none were expected. There is still a honeymoon period for everyone involved here, but how long that lasts is anyone’s guess.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More