Rumors have been swirling around the homeland security community for the past three weeks that U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Pete Neffenger would be named to lead the Transportation Security Administration. On Tuesday, the White House made it official.
While my preference would have been for Acting TSA Administrator Mel Carraway to continue on without the “acting” adjective in front of the title, there are few people outside of TSA who would be a better choice than Admiral Neffenger. He is an outstanding individual and should have no problem getting confirmed once the White House actually sends his nomination to the Senate. As for now, all they have done is announce their “intent to nominate” him.
DHS insiders say that Neffenger impressed DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson with his work as the Principal Federal Official in the Deepwater Horizon oil blowout and with his work as part of the Secretary’s Unity of Effort leadership working group. One gets a sense of Johnson’s admiration for Neffenger in the statement DHS released upon the White House announcement:
“Pete Neffenger is one of the brightest and most capable flag officers in the U.S. military I have ever met. His 30-year record in the Coast Guard includes service as Deputy National Incident Commander for the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, as well as Sector Commander and Federal Maritime Security Coordinator for the mega-ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. I have no doubt that his skills, intellect and energy that have up to now been devoted to maritime security will be easily translatable to aviation security. The first Administrator of TSA, James Loy, had been Commandant of the Coast Guard prior to that.” (Editor’s Note: Admiral James Loy was actually the second TSA Administrator; John Magaw was the first. Since this publication, DHS has corrected its statement.)
Once confirmed, assuming the Senate acts quickly, Neffenger will have slightly more than a year left in the current administration to prove that his extensive maritime expertise will translate into the other areas, especially the aviation domain, to keep America’s entire transportation system safe and secure. He has the management experience and people skills to do the job – but he will have to earn it in an agency that is culturally skeptical of outsiders. His leadership skills are impressive. As President Obama noted in his “intent to nominate” statement:
“Vice Admiral Peter V. Neffenger has served as Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard since May 2014. Vice Admiral Neffenger joined the Coast Guard in 1981, and has served in a number of positions, including Deputy Commandant for Operations, Director of Strategic Management and Doctrine, Deputy National Incident Commander for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and Commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District. Vice Admiral Neffenger served as Sector Commander and Federal Maritime Security Coordinator for the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the central California coast from 2003 to 2006, where he established new and innovative approaches to the safety and security of our ports. Vice Admiral Neffenger received a B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University, an M.A. from Central Michigan University, an M.P.A. from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and an M.A. from the Naval War College.”
Admiral Neffenger is well known in the larger homeland security community, and he will have broad support. He has the capability to help TSA grow beyond where it finds itself after the positive changes implemented by the recent leadership team of John Pistole and Mel Carraway (joined a few months ago by the well-respected Acting Deputy Administrator Mark Hatfield.)
I’m not sure what will happen with Carraway or Hatfield, who have performed the job beyond expectations, but if Neffenger is smart, he will keep them on at TSA and build his team upon their institutional knowledge. We wish Admiral Pete Neffenger “fair winds and a following sea” as he leaves the U.S. Coast Guard and goes through the Senate nomination process.