DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano winning over heavyweights with her persona

By Anne E. Kornblut
Thursday, April 22, 2010; C01

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.

"We live in a world where we don't provide guarantees. We provide the ability to identify and minimize risk, and to respond quickly should a risk materialize," she said, in a low, serious voice. "But if something happens in the United States, we also have to have confidence as a people that we'll be able to respond."

Does she ever feel panicked about the impossible number of threats? "No," she replied, without hesitation.

Told that some of her aides describe her as unflappable, almost Zen, under pressure, she did a mock double take.

"Did you say 'thin?' " she said, laughing.

Taking the 3 a.m. call

Napolitano's wry sense of humor is a defining trait. She also has an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, able to spend hours discussing movies and television ("The Wire" and "Mad Men" are particular obsessions). Oddly, given her role, the only series Napolitano seems not to watch is terrorism thriller "24" on Fox. But then, she does not have to.

"Remember in the presidential campaign, the 3 a.m. ad?" said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a friend of hers, referring to the Clinton campaign's provocative questioning of Obama's ability to handle a crisis. "The secretary of homeland security is actually the person who has to take that 3 a.m. call. Even when it is a false alarm."

When the 3 a.m. call came on Christmas Day, it came after breakfast. Napolitano was at her brother's house when news broke that a young Nigerian had detonated an explosive device hidden in his underwear during the flight's approach. She joined in flurries of phone calls, learning that the suspect had boarded with a valid visa but no extra screening despite red flags.

The following morning, while Obama and other counterterror officials stayed on vacation, Napolitano was dispatched to the television networks. On two Sunday shows, she sounded firm, insisting that, once the bomb failed to detonate, authorities had things under control. But on a third, she truncated her talking point to declare "the system worked" -- triggering a wave of criticism, especially from Republicans who ridiculed her for failing to grasp what had failed.

Within the White House, her support never waned despite the unfortunate choice of words. "Anybody in public service goes through rough spots," Emanuel said. "The question is, (a) do you learn something? And (b) how do you handle it when you go through it?" Several other officials said she had been right where it mattered -- in her actions, if not her verbiage. Tom Ridge, the first DHS secretary, said she had been unfairly criticized.

Napolitano is matter-of-fact about the incident, if not exactly thrilled to discuss it. "There's no time to sit and moan about a quote that's something you said," she said. "You've just got to move."

If further proof of her resilience were needed, it came earlier this month, as Napolitano traveled thousands of miles from Washington. Word leaked that Justice John Paul Stevens would retire from the Supreme Court after this term -- and that Napolitano, whom Obama interviewed during the last vacancy, was again on the shortlist.

A former popular governor of Arizona elected during an era of Republican dominance in 2002, Napolitano would bring to the court the kind of "real world experience" Obama said he prefers. And there is no question she would want the job. Described by friends as a striver with higher aims, she has been discussed as not just a justice or attorney general but perhaps even a presidential candidate.

Still, traveling abroad as speculation about her future buzzed, Napolitano stuck to her script. She was flattered, but focused on her job, she said. Only during a long flight did she let her guard down, allowing that it was an odd sensation to be talked about as a potential justice.

"It doesn't, in a way, seem real, because you're reading about yourself. And I'm Janet," she said. "That seems like it's going on in another world, in a way. It's very unreal in that sense. And it is flattering. Who wouldn't be flattered by that?"

A 'hard-charging boss'

More to the point: What secretary of homeland security wouldn't eventually want an escape hatch?

It is a thankless job, one that puts its occupants in the spotlight only when disaster strikes. When she hasn't been managing terrorist threats, Napolitano has worked on other nightmares -- the H1N1 flu crisis, border violence. It is a "24/7-type job," as she describes it, just as being governor was, meaning that she has basically been on the clock for the past eight years.

Even during a lull, she is in motion. Phone calls to her staff run as late as 11:45 p.m., sometimes with another at 5:30 a.m. (she does not do e-mail, and only recently got a cellphone). Around headquarters at the Nebraska Avenue Complex, not far from her condo, Napolitano has been known to confront aides about their missteps. Her chief of staff, Noah Kroloff, 37, who has worked for her for a decade, describes her as an "incredibly hard-charging boss."

That may be the only kind of boss DHS requires. The third-largest department in the government, cobbled together with 22 agencies after Sept. 11, 2001, it is still an impenetrable alphabet soup of regulations. DHS has so many acronyms that there is now an iPhone guide. (What other Cabinet secretary has an app for that?)

Brennan, the White House official who works most closely with Napolitano and likes to describe her as a "tough lady," said her determination to master the challenges of the institution is unyielding. "She is always on the job," Brennan said. "I don't always agree with her, but I'm always glad that she is on the team."

It is noteworthy that those disagreements rarely surface publicly. Few on the outside, for example, know that she was an early opponent of setting a one-year deadline to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility. She has disagreed with Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on other matters, typically drawing a hard national security line.

But she seems uncomfortable having her views known. Asked about her opposition to the Guantanamo deadline, Napolitano grew quiet, then asked: "Who told you that?"

After a moment, she tried a diplomatic reply. "It became evident pretty quickly . . . that the deadline would have to be extended," she said speaking for several minutes, never fully confirming her disagreement with the original policy. But never really denying it.

Planning her leisure

Before heading to Barcelona and Nigeria, Napolitano stopped in Madrid for a security conference, spending hours in long meetings. That night, she put into practice one of her life maxims: "Plan your leisure." That sounds like a killjoy, but without it, enjoyment would be even more rare.

And so, late on a Friday night, her entourage set out from the hotel to a restaurant. It was a conspicuous movement: Bulky men in dark suits cleared a path ahead, making sure it was safe for the compact woman in a red blazer to walk the streets of Madrid. Down a narrow alley, the secretary spotted a silk store and darted inside -- to shop for someone else, as usual. After thoroughly examining multiple scarves and summoning an aide for help, she settled on a blue one for her assistant of 11 years.

Some politicians have constant turnover on their staffs; others keep their aides for life, as Napolitano does. Maybe it's her gift-giving, or perhaps her offbeat sensibility: If Reagan loved jelly beans, and Pelosi is a chocoholic, Napolitano is avowed connoisseur of Peeps, the sugary Easter candy.

And then there's the singing. Her love of song is such that over the course of a single dinner in Madrid -- with wine flowing freely for everyone but the secretary, who quit drinking two years ago -- Napolitano serenaded her table no fewer than six times, her repertoire ranging from "American Pie" to the Girl Scouts anthem to the theme song from "Mamma Mia." She recalled once singing in front of Brennan, and said, laughing gregariously, that she was sure the serious terrorism adviser was horrified. "He was probably asking himself, 'Didn't they vet these people?' " she said.

In Barcelona the following day, she took another detour. After her port security visit, she headed to a Picasso museum, where she found a portrait that pleased her: "La Nana," the painting of an angry-looking female dwarf.

Napolitano laughed approvingly. Then she turned around, hands on hips, and assumed the role of the dwarf. "I'm tough," she declared. "Do not mess with me." Hours later, she was on her way to Nigeria, with the same message.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company