DHS Secretary Johnson: Fundamental change needed at the Secret Service

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A higher level of accountability, zero-based budgeting, and more and better trained people are among the recommendations from an expert panel to improve the Secret Service.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson released an executive summary of the panel’s suggestions Thursday after a two-month study.

The panel recommends that DHS hire a new director of the Secret Service from outside the agency. It says the service needs “dynamic leadership that can move the service forward into a new era and drive change in the organization.”

The expert panel, which was made up of former Secret Service executives, said the agency faces difficult choices in the coming years and only a newcomer to the agency with proper leadership support can take an “honest top-to-bottom reassessment” of the agency’s activities.

The head of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, resigned in October and Johnson named this expert panel after several breaches of White House security became public.

“In my judgment, the panel’s recommendations are astute, thorough and fair. Fundamental change is needed at the Secret Service,” said Johnson, who spoke Thursday at a Professional Services Council event in Arlington, Virginia. “They do a remarkable job of protecting the President, the first family and other national leaders, and they do a remarkable job in protecting the world leaders who come to the New York General Assembly of the U.N. every year. They are the best protection service in the world. No other protection service could do what the Secret Service does. It’s an organization in need of some change, so it’s incumbent upon the leadership of the Secret Service as well as me as the cabinet secretary of the department that oversees the Secret Service, to bring about this change and make sure the change is sustained. And we are going to do that.”

The change Johnson is talking about also could include more staff and better training for personnel. The panel also says the service needs “a hiring process run by human resources experts valued for their specialized knowledge about how to recruit and retain talent, in a timely and efficient manner.”

Finally, the panel says the service must invest in technology and become a leader in research and development around their mission areas.

Johnson said some of the recommendations are not new. Experts made similar ones in the 1995 White House Security Review.

Johnson said some of those changes were never made and he’s committed to getting them done this time around.

Reaction to the recommendations on Capitol Hill were mostly positive, but several lawmakers called for Johnson to act quickly.

“At the start of the new Congress, we will be conducting a bipartisan investigation that will allow lawmakers to further examine some of the matters highlighted in this report,” said Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), incoming chairman and ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in joint statement. “The investigation will examine security breaches that have recently been publicly reported, as well as focus on overall leadership, staffing, culture, protocol, technology, tactics and training issues. A serious and robust investigation must include cooperation on both sides of aisle in order to root out systemic problems and implement proper reforms.”

Slowly breaking down stovepipes

The changes coming to the Secret Service reflect on a small scale what is happening across the department under Johnson’s Unity of Effort initiative.

He kicked off the follow-up to former Secretary Janet Napolitano’s One-DHS effort in April.

Johnson said the department is making progress across the board in coming closer together.

He said one example is the second unqualified financial audit opinion DHS received in November.

But where the Unity of Effort also must impact is around employee morale — an area DHS continues to struggle in as it was once again 19th out of 19 large agencies in the most recent Best Places to Work survey by the Partnership for Public Service.

Johnson said he’s trying to do some big and little things to make a difference.

“The deputy secretary and I have embarked upon an aggressive campaign to improve morale. I think we are starting to see improvements already,” Johnson said. “We’ve brought back the Secretary’s awards program, which had been suspended and gone dormant since 2008 to thank people for their work every chance we get. We are thanking our workforce for their important contributions to homeland security. This morning in fact, I was out in our parking lot at our headquarters at 7:30 [Thursday] morning handing out candy canes to our workers as they arrived. They were quite surprised.”

The Unity of Effort is more than just awards and candy canes, however. Johnson said he’s applying this approach across the mission areas too.

Joint task forces on border security

Earlier this week, Johnson said he announced earlier three new task forces around border security.

“We also are putting in place a southern border campaign strategy. We are eliminating the stovepipes in our department where CBP does its thing, ICE does its thing and CIS does its thing,” he said. “We will now deal with border security in a more coordinated, strategic fashion where we are going to have task forces and a task force leader who coordinates the effort in border security in different parts of the country. That plan is underway.”

He said the leaders of the Customs and Border Protection, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Citizenship and Immigration Services directorates and Coast Guard routinely met in his office to discuss this strategy.

The Coast Guard leads east task force; CBP leads the west group and ICE leads the one on investigations. Peter Verga, the Defense advisor to Johnson, oversees the entire task force effort.

Johnson also said DHS is coming together around budget planning and informally around a variety of mission areas.

He said more needs to be done to eliminate stovepipes and change the department’s culture, but progress is real.

Johnson also is receiving more support for this culture change because the Senate finally confirmed 13 senior leaders over the last 12 months. Johnson said he hopes that Undersecretary for Management Russell Deyo will be confirmed in early 2015. A year ago, DHS faced a senior leadership vacancy rate of about 40 percent.

Beyond stopping terrorism and protecting the homeland, Johnson said cybersecurity is among his top priorities.

He said the five bills Congress passed are important steps forward for the agency in several regards, most importantly giving DHS new workforce hiring authorities.

A range of options to respond

Johnson also said DHS is working closely with others in the administration and the private sector about the hack against Sony pictures.

“It’s a very serious attack. We know that the company itself was affected. We know that employees of the company were affected. We know that information, movies that the company was not ready to make public were made public so it’s a very serious attack,” he said. “We’ve got to consider a range of serious options, which we are doing right now in the U.S. government about how to respond to it. I would not want this type of attack to be a wave of the future. We are considering a range of options about how to respond.”

The Sony hack shows once again why cyber information sharing is needed and why DHS needs to be at the center of that effort, Johnson added.

All of these efforts around cyber, the Unity of Effort and many other mission areas, however, are at risk because of the continuing resolution that only DHS is under. Congress approved DHS to spend at fiscal 2014 levels through only Feb. 27. Johnson said that puts DHS in a very troubling position.

“It is disruptive and creates uncertainty in our homeland security workforce and in our programs,” he said. “I supported the deal that was made with Congress. Overall I think it was a good thing that we not have a government shutdown, but we need to come back to my department and its missions and fund them in February.”

Johnson said DHS can’t do any new starts, and can’t pay for costs already incurred to deal with the surge of illegal immigrants last summer and the need to sustain the additional resources. He said new technology and non-disaster grants also are on hold until Congress resolves the budget issues.

Despite the fact DHS is the only agency under a CR, Johnson said his relationship with the 108 oversight committees is stronger than ever. But the budget problems need to be fixed sooner than later, he said.

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