DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano winning over heavyweights with her persona

BOUNCING BACK: DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano describes the near-disaster Christmas Day bombing on Flight 253 as a "catalyst" for airline security fixes.
BOUNCING BACK: DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano describes the near-disaster Christmas Day bombing on Flight 253 as a "catalyst" for airline security fixes. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Anne E. Kornblut
Thursday, April 22, 2010

BARCELONA -- Janet Napolitano stood near the water's edge, arms crossed, gazing up at a giant X-ray contraption.

It was a sleepy Saturday in Barcelona, and the city port was deserted. But the secretary of homeland security, who had flown in for a few hours on her way to Nigeria, was confronting this elephantine tangle of metal. This stop was the second on an international tour she launched after an attempted airliner attack on Christmas nearly became the Obama administration's Sept. 11, 2001.

Surrounded by rows of shipping containers, 42,000 of which are sent to the United States each year, Napolitano quickly summed up the magnitude of her task, which even a machine this large could hardly address.

"Is there only the one scanner for the entire port?" Napolitano asked.

Yes, her guide replied. Napolitano winced.

A moment later, local officials started up the X-ray machine for her. It malfunctioned. "This doesn't make any sense," she fumed. "I've watched these scanners all over the place. Why doesn't this one work?"

That question -- of whether security devices work -- is one that has haunted Napolitano ever since a 23-year-old Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in Detroit. After the incident, Napolitano's misconstrued claim that the "system worked" became a national punch line, one that briefly seemed as if it might derail her upward trajectory.

But four months later, after hunkering down in the granular details of international aviation standards, Napolitano has reemerged as one of the strongest members of the Obama Cabinet: On the shortlist for the Supreme Court, in line if the attorney general position should become available and, just this week, front and center at the Oklahoma City bombing memorial.

Senior administration officials describe her as one of the most astute members of the national security team, some in hyperbolic terms. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, in a recent interview, declared himself as "head over heels for her," which doesn't happen often. White House terrorism adviser John O. Brennan hails her as "passionate" and "formidable."

How Napolitano, 52, won over hard-to-please heavyweights while managing the most unwieldy department in Washington is a testament to her relentless persona. The tough and stocky former prosecutor once climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and even delivered her speech at the 2000 Democratic convention three weeks after a mastectomy. Napolitano embraced the Christmas Day bomber crisis as an opportunity -- to the surprise of no one close to her -- and told President Obama she would use it to seek cooperation on airline security from recalcitrant countries. To this day, she chipperly describes the near-disaster as a "catalyst" for improvements.

In the months since, she has hopped from Japan to Mexico to scout the global aviation mess. She worked her way, Captain Ahab-style, toward Nigeria, the country where Abdulmutallab began his journey. Yet as Napolitano flew into the capital Abuja in mid-April, just hours after reviewing the dockside headaches of Barcelona, she came face to face with the dangers that make global travel so impossible to police. She would spend just 24 hours in Nigeria, traveling under heavy security in a city so violent her contingent was advised not to leave the hotel. Nonetheless, her goal was to somehow grasp the airport security status of the entire African continent, in the hopes of stopping a single terrorist from ever slipping lethal materials onto a U.S.-bound plane again.

Under the circumstances, Napolitano sounded surprisingly philosophical. "Something could always get through," she said, leaning forward in her seat aboard the small military plane she uses for travel.

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