News reports indicate that DHS Secretary Napolitano will announce Alan Bersin as a Counselor to the Secretary today with the informal title of “Border Czar” focusing on the Southwest border and the escalating violence in the region. 

Breaking the spiral of drugs, guns, and money flowing both directions across the border certainly should be a priority of the department and the Administration as a whole, and President Obama’s trip to Mexico on Thursday hopefully will bring a renewed focus to the law enforcement priorities on both sides of the border.  Moreover, the Secretary certainly needs a trusted advisor to provide counsel on the myriad of activities underway and on the drawing board at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Coast Guard, the Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and local law enforcement. 

However, designating Bersin as a “czar” and presumably having him represent the Secretary before Congress, in international negotiations, during interagency deliberations, and other settings is inevitably going to cause confusion over how DHS is organized.

CBP, ICE and the Coast Guard report directly to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary.  For operational issues, DHS has an Operations Directorate to coordinate cross-agency activity.  For policy development including international activity, DHS has a Policy Directorate.  In fact, the White House announced Tuesday the intent to nominate the widely respected David Heyman at CSIS as the head of the Policy Directorate. 

So who’s now responsible for particular operations in the Southwest region at DHS HQ?  Who’s responsible for border security policy-making, knowing there will always be a need for medium and long-term planning and an ability to weigh Southwest border priorities against all of the rest of the department’s agenda?  And even if the people at the NAC can coordinate their activities, if Bersin and the head of CBP disagree on a policy call, does a czar outrank a commissioner?

None of this is meant as a criticism of any particular official or advisor.  Indeed, adding a new rectangle to an already complicated DHS organization chart may remind some DHS observers of a prior version.  If you can dig up the DHS chart circa 2004, you’ll find a differently named czar, the Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security. Perhaps one of Bersin’s first calls for advice should be former BTS lead Asa Hutchinson.  Ironically, the Secretary and her close advisors occupy his old office suite so maybe there is a Czar playbook already on the shelf.