Homeland Security

Houston's devastation is a powerful reminder that Homeland Security matters. Here's the leadership mix our next secretary needs to have

Brian Finlay

Lost in the generally positive commentary on retired Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly’s appointment as White House chief of staff has been the vacancy his appointment has left in his former job as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

This vacancy at Homeland Security comes at a critical time – especially as the nation watches Texas struggle in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

The Department of Homeland Security consists of over 240,000 employees carrying out a wide range of missions through multiple operational agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), customs and border control, immigration, TSA, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Secret Service.

Time is of the essence in nominating and confirming a new secretary of Homeland Security. But the quality of the nominee is equally important, to take on the job of keeping Americans secure in a time of growing threats at home and abroad.

With recent terrorist attacks in Spain and Finland, a dangerous resurgence of white nationalism and domestic terrorism, a divisive national debate around immigration, threats to infrastructure, natural disasters like Harvey, and a growing number of cyberattacks on our nation, it is vital that the White House and Senate move quickly to nominate and confirm a well-qualified leader to serve as our new secretary of Homeland Security.

But what are the attributes of such a person?

Our experience in national security, international relations and border management – including Brian Goebel’s tenure as a senior official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection – suggests that the new secretary must possess three core characteristics.

First, the new secretary must have leadership experience in law enforcement, intelligence or the military. At its core, the Department of Homeland Security is an operational department that carries out a broad mix of law enforcement, security and incident response functions. Fitting past experience must be possessed on Day One.

Second, the president’s nominee should possess expertise in most, if not all, of the following areas: counterterrorism and countering violent extremism; combating transnational criminal organizations; sanctions enforcement; international travel and trade; and intelligence sharing and coordination, both domestically and in conducting joint operations or programs with our allies.

Our nation faces an ever-evolving set of threats from abroad and within, and our next secretary of Homeland Security must understand that our borders and interior law enforcement personnel represent the last lines of defense rather than the first.

To ensure security at home, we must think and act globally by working with our allies abroad. The new secretary of Homeland Security must understand each of these layers of national security in order to balance limited resources to meet changing circumstances.

The third set of characteristics that the next secretary should possess are what we call the “leadership cocktail,” which includes vision and strategy as well as decisiveness on the merits of issues.

As stated above, DHS consists of hundreds of thousands of employees carrying out a variety of significant missions to protect this nation. The secretary, then, in this management environment, is responsible for developing, communicating, and building buy-in around a compelling vision and strategy that inspires and galvanizes a diverse workforce.

The secretary of Homeland Security must also make fact-based decisions that conform to stated goals and objectives. Nothing undermines mission and morale in the civil service more than seeing a leader govern politically in order to improve his or her career prospects. 

The new secretary should lead the department like it is the last job he or she will ever have, not as a steppingstone.

One measure of that leadership is an ability to markedly lift morale. Of the 18 largest agencies in the U.S. government, Homeland Security ranks dead last in a survey of employee satisfaction.

We cannot afford to let Kelly’s departure further undermine the fragile morale at the department that he was just starting to improve.

Time is of the essence in nominating and confirming a new secretary of Homeland Security. But the quality of the nominee is equally important, and a hastily selected and unqualified nominee will almost certainly be inadequate to the job of keeping Americans secure in a time of growing threats at home and abroad.

A candidate possessing each of our recommended characteristics is not a proverbial “unicorn.”  Many leaders have served with distinction in the post-9/11 era. Indeed, our experience in government has introduced us to an astonishing array of talented, humble, and patriotic Americans willing to work long hours, often away from their families, to undertake the nation’s business. 

Few who understand the issues would dispute that Kelly was the right kind of leader for the Department of Homeland Security, easily checking the qualifications above. 

Let’s hope President Trump, with Kelly’s sound counsel, finds a worthy replacement as America moves forward in confronting tomorrow’s threats.

Brian Goebel is a distinguished fellow at The Stimson Center.

Brian Finlay is president and CEO of the nonpartisan Stimson Center.