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It really was one of those truly unique occasions when you can gather a select group of individuals together to talk about a subject that they alone can talk about with authority as well as historical perspective. Such was the occasion at Georgetown University as it hosted the only three people to hold what is arguably one of the most demanding and thankless jobs in America – Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In partnership with the Aspen Institute, Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano sat down with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in Georgetown’s famed Gaston Hall to talk about the state of America’s newest Cabinet Department and what we have learned after eight years of its operation.

Taped for broadcast by C-Span, the program showed all the candor and relaxation that comes with having the word “former” before your name when you are introduced to an audience. Ridge and Chertoff were certainly at ease before the audience and showed the fact that when you are no longer in office and no longer subject to the brow beatings of the media, the Congress, and general public, you can say what is really on your mind instead of the talking points put in front of you by your bosses at the White House or the public affairs staff working for you. It’s not that Sec. Napolitano appeared uncomfortable in the format – she was fine. In fact, it was one of her better public outings in discussing what the Department is up to, but when you’re in the hot seat like she is, everything you say can and will take on a new life and have misconstrued meanings depending on who hears it. In the cases of Ridge and Chertoff, both men can attest that their lives are certainly a whole lot more pleasant than they were when they had the responsibilities of running the nation’s homeland security enterprise.

Napolitano did exactly what the Administration hoped she would do today. She portrayed the confidence of someone with both hands on the wheel of DHS, and she didn’t make news. Nothing she said was out of sorts with her recent public remarks or the things she has said since taking the post over two years ago. That, by every measure of the White House and DHS Public Affairs apparatus, is a success.

The newsmaker of the event was Tom Ridge. In his ever affable, conversational style, he talked with pride about the evolution of the Department since he took its reigns eight years ago. While sharing that he still has days that he missed the Department and its people, he also described that he also missed “not knowing” about everything that was going on as it pertained to threats to the homeland.

Ridge was also the generator of two unscripted rounds of audience applause when he discussed the need for the country to carefully examine its immigration policy as well as the needed improvements to better facilitate the role of the private sector in working with the Department. He didn’t hold back on either occasion. In addressing the immigration issue, he declared that as a Member of Congress, he had voted for amnesty for a number of illegal immigrants during the Reagan Administration and that there was no way the United States was going to ship 12 million people (illegal immigrants) out of the country to deal with the current problem. In his words, people needed to “get over it.”

At the close of the program, he gave a passionate description of the barriers and excuses he saw in place that prevented the private sector sitting side by side with the Department to work critical infrastructure protection issues and more. There were a lot of audience member head bobs on that one, and I proudly disclose that I was one of them. I thought about shouting out an “Amen!” but in a room full of Secret Service agents and University cops, I decided to just sit down and shut up for a change.

The other thing that I walked away with was the unwavering support for TSA and the thankless job that its workforce does every day in the nation’s airports. Ridge and Chertoff were both asked to comment on what it’s like to travel now as private citizens (e.g., having to take off their shoes, going through metal detectors, etc.). In sharing those experiences, both men pointed out the professionalism of the TSA workforce in dealing with some less-than-ideal circumstances. Their words were certainly more respectful of the job that they do than those of the President during his recent State of the Union speech, who made them a punch line for a joke that didn’t go over too well.

All in all, it was time well spent…but for one thing.

On occasions such as these, it is not unheard of to have a number of dignitaries, including elected officials, attend. That was certainly the case this time as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Rep. Peter King (R-NY), Rep. David Price (D-NC) and now former Rep. Jane Harman, the new President of the Wilson Center, were in attendance. It is certainly appropriate to recognize them for their leadership and service in the homeland areas, but when the time comes to engage the audience and have Q&A with them, turning the overwhelming amount of time to the Members of Congress is just plain wrong. As a unique and public forum at a university with these three distinguished leaders, the general public – you know, regular people such as students, faculty, private sector representatives and others in attendance – should take priority.

Each of these current and former Members of Congress regularly have the opportunity to question the current Secretary and certainly her predecessors via the plethora of Congressional hearings. Secretary Napolitano alone has three Congressional hearings this week in which to hear what Members want to know about. There’s no national secret that there are over 120 different Congressional committees with oversight of DHS, asking more questions and putting more demands on it than any federal department has ever had to contend with. Allowing Members to literally monopolize the majority of question time in a public forum while there is a line of regular folks standing patiently in line just put a damper on the whole affair. Whether it was playing to their egos or a genuine sign of respect, it would have been nice to have afforded the “the regular people” a chance to ask the balance of questions. That is something all of the Department’s current and former leaders would agree that they would like to do more of. (And before anyone takes my criticism of the questioning as some sort of selfish whining, no, I was not one of those people standing in line!)

The ability to interact with highly accomplished individuals is something the Aspen Institute did well at last year’s National Security Forum, but somehow that capacity got overlooked this time at Georgetown. With any luck, this is a one-time blip on what should be a regular affair in gathering individuals such as these together. We, as a nation, are all better for their service, and God knows they have a lot to teach us all going forward.

Rich Cooper blog 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
  • Rlarsen

    Sorry to hear that elected officials dominated the Q&A. Glad I left at 10:00. The WMD Commission gave Congress a well deserved “F” for their work in organizing the legislative branch for the challenges of the 21st century.

  • Rlarsen

    Rich, you owe me an adult beverage. Everyone on stage, except for the Secretary, mispronounced her name.