Job Vacancies At DHS Said To Hurt U.S. Preparedness

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 9, 2007

The Bush administration has failed to fill roughly a quarter of the top leadership posts at the Department of Homeland Security, creating a "gaping hole" in the nation's preparedness for a terrorist attack or other threat, according to a congressional report to be released today.

As of May 1, Homeland Security had 138 vacancies among its top 575 positions, with the greatest voids reported in its policy, legal and intelligence sections, as well as in immigration agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Coast Guard. The vacant slots include presidential, senior executive and other high-level appointments, according to the report by the majority staff of the House Homeland Security Committee.

A DHS spokesman challenged the report's tally, saying that it is skewed by a sudden expansion this spring in the number of top management jobs. Before then, only 12 percent of positions were unfilled in a department that has always been thinly staffed at headquarters, spokesman Russ Knocke said.

The findings have stoked fresh concern among some in Congress about the four-year-old department's progress in overcoming management problems, dating to its troubled 2003 creation from 22 components.

The DHS was reorganized in 2005 by its current secretary, Michael Chertoff. But it suffered a breakdown at multiple levels in responding to Hurricane Katrina that August, which prompted a new congressional overhaul.

"One of the continuing problems appears to be the over politicization of the top rank of Department management," concludes the report by the committee, chaired by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.). "This could lead to heightened vulnerability to terrorist attack."

In an interview, Thompson said that vacancies have weakened morale and reflect an over-reliance on contractors. He also called the report a warning "that we can expect more vacancies to occur than what we have been accustomed to" at the close of the administration, when many top personnel will leave their posts.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, agreed that the inability to fill jobs is creating problems within DHS offices. While walking in his district yesterday, Davis said, he met constituents employed at an immigration agency who described lower morale because of the vacancies.

The DHS has one of the largest rosters of senior political appointees in the federal government, in part because of how it was created. The DHS says it has never had more than 220 senior political appointees, although the Office of Personnel Management told Congress of more than 360 in 2004, National Journal reported last month.

Of the 138 vacant positions, the DHS provided no explanation for 70, according to the House report. Seven others had tentative or pending appointees and 60 were under recruitment.

The department currently has 130 vacancies at senior levels, Knocke said, with 92 now in the process of recruitment.

A major focus of the current DHS leadership, Knocke said, is preparing a competent bench of managers by 2009, when a new presidential administration will come into power. Department officials said they have removed officials whose qualifications and political backgrounds were called into question in favor of more seasoned personnel.

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