As they walked out onto the stage at George Washington University, it was almost a Mount Rushmore moment. Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff, Janet Napolitano and Thad Allen. Four individuals who by the nature of their respective careers, experiences and positions have become the most recognizable faces associated with homeland security.

In a dialogue sponsored by GW’s Homeland Security Policy Institute and the Homeland Security & Defense Business Council, the three DHS Secretaries were “interviewed” by Adm. Allen. It was in one sense of the word, the employee getting to interview all three of his most recent bosses, since he had reported to each one of them over the past ten years. By no means a combative interview, the exchanges with the three secretaries were as relaxed as they were informative, with each talking about risk management, tight budgets, cyber security, ongoing maturity of DHS and more.

As I watched the four leaders on the stage, I could not help but try and think of any other Cabinet department that had its most recent leaders assemble on a stage (let alone in one room) to talk about the state of things. For as long as Napolitano has taken the reins of the DHS Secretary’s Office, she, Ridge and Chertoff have gotten together in numerous public forums to talk about the state of homeland security. Compare that to the other Cabinet departments, such as Defense, State, Labor, HUD and so forth. I’m not aware that such gatherings even take place. For some of those Departments, such gatherings might have to be held in a steel cage or octagon given some of the personal, political and ideological divides that separate them. That was not the case for this crew. There was a genuine respect that each had for the other.

Ridge and Chertoff also shared that they occasionally speak with Napolitano, as she calls from time to time so to bounce ideas off the former secretaries. In a town where respect and civility are even rarer than a balanced budget and fiscal restraint, I felt proud to be a part of community where national mission took priority over petty politics. That proclamation spoke volumes about the foundation of homeland security as well as the Department.

Ridge also recounted for the audience his phone call to then-Arizona Governor Napolitano the night before her nomination to be DHS Secretary was announced. “There are only two other people in the world that know what you’re in for,” to which the audience responded in laughter and Sec. Napolitano gently nodded her head in agreement.

While there may have been some nuanced differences in their respective responses, one issue that had the most uniform and vocal agreement was the ongoing dysfunctional oversight of homeland security by Congress. Ridge and Chertoff were vocal about this issue while they held the Secretary’s chair and certainly after they left office. Napolitano though has been relatively restrained in challenging the ongoing Capitol Hill circus of oversight. That is until October 11, 2011. Whether it was a case of “it’s the end of the day and I’m going to say what I want,” or a sense of relaxation that “hey, I’ve been in the job almost three years and feel I can push back without the White House going nuts on me,” Napolitano finally gave her voice.

In calling for greater “self-reflection” by Congress, she came right out and said that “realignment has been a problem” in terms of the number of committees that oversee her Department. When questioned by Ridge as to how many committees she now had to report to, she responded, “I think it’s a 108 now.” The number of nodding heads in agreement in the room looked like something out of a Sunday morning Southern Baptist church. If Adm. Allen or any of the DHS Secretaries had turned to the audience and said, “Can I get an Amen?!” they would have been knocked back onto the stage with the thunderous response back.

Seizing the opportunity to drive the point home, Napolitano mentioned the number of reports that Congress requires the Department write and submit to them, noting that many of them are obviously never read by the requesting Members or staff. This gave Ridge the opportunity to deliver probably the biggest laugh line of the night joking that a written test should be submitted to the report-requesting Member/staff and only if they passed a test on the submitted report could they request another contingent.

Frankly, that’s not a bad metric but my personal favorite is one I heard that is going on at DOD. Whether it was former Pentagon Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or Robert Gates who ordered it, but posted somewhere within the Congressionally requested reports on DOD issues is the cost of the report’s research, development, layout and printing (per issue). In the budget austere times that we currently reside, DHS might want to consider following that lead.

If there was any message the GWU & HSDBC event drove home it was civil, principled and cooperative leadership exists at the core of the Department and the larger homeland security community. Yes, there are political differences and there always will be, but at the end of the day, the respectful tone each of the DHS secretaries relayed for the other bodes well for whoever comes after Napolitano more than a year from now. The job that each of them has held is by far the most thankless one in Washington. They will receive no credit when something goes right but most certainly will have all of the fire and brimstone condemnation that comes when something goes wrong. I guess that is the unwavering and unwritten part of the job’s description, but it was nice to see how strong the foundation was from the beginning and what that means for the future.

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
  • Tim Sullivan

    Rich…Great feedback and report out. You, like those leaders, have done us all a great service. Thanks to you for your ongoing leadership in HLS.