- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The background of President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to head the Department of Homeland Security will reveal a lot about how his nascent administration views the future of the troubled agency, according to Washington insiders.

“There are any number of excellently qualified candidates,” P.J. Crowley, director of homeland security at the Center for American Progress, told United Press International. “It will be interesting to see the selection. The skill set will tell us a lot about the future direction [of the department] in an Obama administration.”

Mr. Crowley was a senior national security official under President Clinton, and John Podesta, the head of CAP, is co-chairman of Mr. Obama’s transition team.

Mr. Crowley and other security experts said in interviews that the Homeland Security Department, with the second-largest work force in the federal government, has responsibilities in areas of potentially enormous political significance for the new government - counterterrorism, disaster recovery and immigration.

“That is why the skill set is interesting … you can compare it to the challenges in these … diverse areas,” said Mr. Crowley.

“How do you lead an agency that is still searching for a common identity?” asked Mr. Crowley, adding that the department’s agenda was “still a work in progress.”

There was general agreement that the management challenges at the Homeland Security Department were probably the most severe of any in the federal government, with the possible exception of the Defense Department.

Many of its major acquisition programs - such as the Coast Guard’s Deepwater refurbishment plan or the high-technology virtual border in the Southwest - have been beset with cost overruns, under-performance and other management crises. And the agency spent much of its first five years embroiled in internal and external turf battles.

“Whoever you bring in is going to need … great executive leadership and management skills to run what is a very unwieldy department,” said David Heyman with the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. Heyman added that the pick also would have to have “the ability to connect with the public during a crisis,” such as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

“You need a communicator, a leader, someone who can inspire … one of the largest federal work forces,” said Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, a former Democratic congressional staffer who now works as a public-policy consultant in the private sector.

“The department has to move from the internal focus it has had to deal with its external relationships, the coordination across the federal government, the partnerships with state, local and tribal [governments] and the private sector, and repairing some of its international relationships,” said Miss Herrera-Flanigan.

“In some ways you need a jack-of-all-trades,” she concluded.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, an early Obama supporter, has come up often as a possible candidate, though most observers were not keen to be quoted discussing possible candidates.

A former federal prosecutor and state attorney general, Mrs. Napolitano “has a law enforcement background, she is the governor of a border state,” said Mr. Heyman, noting that she had pioneered much of the National Governors Association’s work on homeland security issues.

“Her stock also went up when she was named to the transition team,” added Mr. Heyman of Mrs. Napolitano, who was last week named to a board that will advise the full-time transition staff, but which has yet to meet.

But Mrs. Napolitano also has been mentioned as a possible U.S. attorney general, and the homeland post “is not likely to be at the top of anyone’s list of jobs they want,” remarked one Democratic insider who asked for anonymity. “There’s not a lot of good things that can happen on your watch.”

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