TOPICS > Politics

High-level Homeland Security Vacancies Raise Concerns

July 9, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Now, high-level job vacancies at the Department of Homeland Security. Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The report released today by the Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives revealed that almost one-quarter of the top positions at the Department of Homeland Security are now vacant. Among the findings: 36 percent of the leadership positions in intelligence are not filled; 34 percent are empty at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; and 31 percent are vacant at FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The report raises anew concerns about management at the agency, which, in 2003, at the instigation of President Bush, merged 22 existing federal organizations into one. Here to tell us more is reporter Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post.

Spencer Hsu, thanks for being with us. You wrote a story, a front-page story for the Post today, 138 vacancies. What are these jobs?

SPENCER HSU, The Washington Post: Well, Judy, these are the top category of jobs at the Department of Homeland Security. That includes presidential appointments, top level of senior executive service of top civil servants, and also a tier below that, of top scientific, technical and executive positions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to put it into layperson’s terms, Spencer, what work that should be being done is not being done as a result of this?

SPENCER HSU: Well, these are the kinds of jobs that are in charge of programs and agencies. When you hear people talk about creating an integrated culture of information-sharing, for instance, these are people whose job it is to merge those 22 agencies and make sure that information gets in the right hands.

When you hear about people talking about changing computer systems and making sure the one hand of the government knows what another hand of the government is doing, these are the folks who decide what these databases, what information they should include, how they should work, and whether the costs are worth the benefits.

Finally, if you hear people talk about priority of setting scientific research for new ways of detecting airport explosives, for example, or people who talk about overhauling the immigration system, or folks who talk about screening cargo containers, this is the work done by the people at the very top levels. No matter how good the line officer is, until you set policy and dictate the rules, the work won’t be done.

Concerns about U.S. safety

JUDY WOODRUFF: So does this raise concerns about security, about safety in this country?

SPENCER HSU: You know, this is the latest twist on an old story, and that is where the management problems at the Department of Homeland Security are continuing to create gaps or holes or heightened vulnerability to a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.

We saw this after Hurricane Katrina, when charges were raised that FEMA had been led by political cronies of the president, that there were too many vacancies, and that there were people without enough experience. And despite several consecutive reorganizations, I think the concern that this report raises is that the department is not yet on top of these concerns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is it possible to answer whether there are real safety gaps as a result of all these positions being unfilled?

SPENCER HSU: You know, I guess it goes back to, you know, this old issue of you get what you pay for. People have conflicting demands of government. They want it to be small; they want it to be cheap. But when it comes to security, there's already a lot of money being spent, so the question might better be framed of, are you getting the effective government that you're paying for? And I think, you know, it can't be answered, but it's certainly probably not good that there are these number of vacancies.

You might look at it another way. Republicans like to make the political argument that Democrats are focused too much on fighting terrorism as a law enforcement operation and not like a war. Democrats say that the Republicans focus too much on Iraq to the detriment of homeland security. The lesson from these reports is that there is a real cost of politicizing homeland security. There is a real job that needs to be done. And that job comes down to execution. It comes down to having the right leadership, and it comes down to priorities.

Comparisons to other departments

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we know that every agency of the federal government has vacancies at any given time, especially as you get closer to the end of a president's second term. How do the vacancies at Homeland Security compare to vacancies at other departments?

SPENCER HSU: The Department of Homeland Security has somewhere over 200 presidential appointees compared to the two bigger departments in government. The Veterans Affairs has perhaps 60; the Pentagon, which has 10 times the workers, has about 280.

When it comes to the next transition, one great concern of outside analysts, as well as the department's leaders, is that, who are they going to hand over the keys to? Is the department ready for the transition in 18 months, January 2009, regardless of which party takes power?

Beyond that, the Homeland Security Department is also a test case for a lot of -- a laboratory for a lot of other disturbing trends. There's the increasing reliance on contractors, while there is a diminishing management workforce. It's got increasing competition for its top jobs from the private sector.

The Secret Service directors used to have a tenure of 10 years on average in the 20th century. That's down now to three years. Many of them are going off to the private sector. And there's this general brain drain in government as people age in place. So the issue here is Homeland Security is sort of the tip of the iceberg, but it's a higher priority given the focus on terrorism and domestic security.

Difficulty in filling positions

JUDY WOODRUFF: Spencer Hsu, what is the department itself saying about this? I know they put out what they called a fact sheet late this afternoon.

SPENCER HSU: Yeah, the department says that -- you know, while it grants that they do have, they say, 130 vacancies instead of 138, they say that, look, you know, we have 70 percent under active recruitment or pending or tentative offers. They also say the numbers were inflated, because this spring they got permission from the administration to add about 73 new top jobs. So they don't differ with the overall thrust, but they say that the numbers look worse because of recent changes.

I think the department also grants that it is focusing hard on the transition issue, but they say that there are other folks who may be to blame if the issue is politicization. They say Congress and outside analysts and even the media, of course, may sometimes focus too much on personalities, may focus too much on criticizing agencies and leaders instead of supporting them and providing them with a consensus that they need to do their jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So quickly, do they give a reason why it's taking so long?

SPENCER HSU: There's a couple of reasons, one that government is hard. You know, the federal hiring procedures are focused on process and fairness, not necessarily speed. Security clearances are hard to get. These jobs are hard, hard jobs, and there's a lot of criticism that comes attached. And it's difficult to compete with the private sector.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Spencer Hsu with the Washington Post, thank you very much.