Monday, July 09, 2007

Many Vacancies at Homeland Security

The New York Times
Many Vacancies at Homeland Security

WASHINGTON, July 9 — Fully one-fourth of top positions at the Department of Homeland Security are now vacant, a problem that could make the country more vulnerable to attack, according to a critical report released today by a House oversight committee.

The report, issued by the majority staff of the House Homeland Security Committee, attributed what it called “the gaping hole in department executive resources” in part on “the over-politicization of the top ranks of department management,” particularly in critical national security jobs.

This, the report said, could lead to an unduly large turnover of department executives in 2009 when the next president installs his or her own team.

“This identifies an enormous security vulnerability should an attack or disaster occur during the upcoming presidential transition,” the committee said in a statement.

As of May 1, the report said, 138 of 575 executive positions at the department remained unfilled.

Vacancy rates were close to half in two offices — those of the assistant secretary for policy and of the general counsel — and about one-third in several others, including the office of the assistant secretary for intelligence and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

Vacancy rates of about one-fifth were reported in offices as sensitive as the Nuclear Detection Office, the Office of Operations Coordination, and Customs and Border Protection.

The department was created in 2003, bringing together 22 federal agencies in an effort to forge — or in some cases force — better inter-agency cooperation in dealing with terror threats in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, the new department’s shortcomings were revealed, leading to a reorganization.

The department has attributed the job vacancies largely to the addition of 73 senior executive positions on March 1. Before then, only 12 percent of top positions were unfilled, a department spokesman, Russ Knocke, told The Washington Post, which detailed the House committee’s report on the department’s vacancies today.

The House report called the department’s assertion “a false correlation.” It noted that 70 of the 138 executive positions unfilled were “vacant with no explanation,” while 44 percent were “under recruitment” and only 5 percent involved “tentative or ending appointees.”

But Laura Keehner, a department spokesman, said today that the House report’s numbers were “skewed.” She said that 70 percent of the vacant postings were “already in the hiring process and that’s in the final stages.” She also said that the department, which has 208,000 employees around the world, currently had 200 political appointees, of which about 40 percent were in senior management. Of the top 30 positions in the department, she said, only three were not filled at present.

The House committee’s analysis said that the January 2009 presidential transition would be deeply problematic. The report cited an article from The National Journal that noted that while the Pentagon, for example, has a large and steady cadre of career officers overseeing worldwide operations, Homeland Security “is still run almost entirely by political appointees and stands to be the most weakened during the transition.”

This reliance has been attributed partly to the way the department was cobbled together from diverse agencies with separate power bases, and also to the political horse-trading in Congress involved in its creation. But “in the four and a half years since the department opened for business, few career officials have been promoted into positions of senior or even middle management,” The National Journal reported.

Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the Democrat who is head of the Homeland Security Committee, asserted that the high vacancy rate and broader management problems had resulted in poor morale in the department.

In January, department employees reported the lowest levels of job satisfaction of 36 federal agencies, according to a survey by the federal Office of Personnel Management.

But the precise impact of the job vacancies on the department’s day-to-day work is difficult to gauge.

“To me, the issue is less vacancies per se and more whether they have the right institutional structure,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a security expert at the Brookings Institution. “For example, do they have a vibrant internal think tank and/or red team capacity? I can’t tell, but I’m skeptical.”

A “red team” attempts to anticipate terrorists’ plans and intent.

The department’s reputation suffered in 2005 after what was seen as FEMA’s grossly inadequate response to the hurricanes that battered of the Gulf Coast.

The report indicates that only one of 19 department offices listed had zero executive vacancies: the office of Gulf Coast reconstruction.