When swine flu suddenly erupted in Mexico last month, raising immediate fears of a pandemic, Janet Napolitano, 51, the new Secretary of Homeland Security, was the reassuring face of the administration. As cases spread across the U.S., she issued updates and appeared on television news shows, providing briefings, tamping down panic, and giving Americans the information they needed.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created in 2002 after the government failed to “ connect the dots” on the 9/11 hijackers, but terrorism is only one of its concerns. Napolitano, a former prosecutor and governor of Arizona, is charged with protecting U.S. territory from a variety of foreign and domestic threats—including those that can be planned for, such as the onset of hurricane season, and those that come out of nowhere, like swine flu. “We spend our time thinking about how we increase the safety and security of the U.S.,” she says.
The DHS consolidated 22 federal agencies that handle hundreds of critical functions, including terrorism prevention, immigration, customs, border patrol, airport security, cyber security, nuclear security, the Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). With more than 200,000 employees, it is now the third-largest Cabinet agency and constantly on the firing line. Napolitano’s job covers everything from battling corruption among Mexican border officials to deciding whether American cities have enough radiation detectors.