Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Tuesday said farewell to the agency she has headed for more than four years, saying she leaves behind a department with greater adaptability and stronger ties to local officials.
Napolitano, who departs the federal government on Sept. 6 to lead the University of California system, said her yet-to-be-named successor “will need a large bottle of Advil.” But she described her role, which involves oversight of programs that deal with terrorism, natural disaster and immigration, as “one of the most rewarding jobs there is.”
The former Arizona governor’s comments at the National Press Club mirrored those of former Federal Emergency Management Act chief of staff Jason McNamara, who praised his agency for some of the same changes during an interview with the Federal Eye before departing in May for work in the private sector. Their remarks show that the Department of Homeland Security has operated with unified goals during the Obama administration, at least within the higher ranks.
In her remarks, Napolitano criticized Congress for failing to provide a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants, noting that the Obama administration used its executive power to take action on that front instead. As an example, she pointed to the policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which provides two years of provisional legal status to children living illegally in the U.S. if they meet certain criteria.
Napolitano also noted that the Obama administration changed its immigration enforcement priorities, focusing primarily on criminals and national security threats.
The Homeland Security chief said her tenure involved 325 federally declared disasters and more than 60 emergency declarations. Her legacy includes helping coordinate federal responses to the Boston Marathon bombing, Hurricane Sandy, deadly tornadoes in the South and Midwest, and an attempt to blow up an airplane headed for Detroit on Christmas Day of 2009.
Napolitano said she has emphasized adaptability and strong relationships with local officials during her time as head of Homeland Security. “To be flexible and agile means being forward-looking in our preparations, early and active in our engagement, nimble in our response and resilient in our recovery,” she said.
The outgoing department head credited federal, state and local officials with collaborating effectively after the Boston attack, saying the overall response was “quick, orderly, focused, and comprehensive.” She said advance preparations helped mitigate the impacts of Hurricane Sandy last year, noting that her agency sent water, food and other essential supplies before the storm hit.
Napolitano made only brief reference to growing threats in the realm of cybersecurity, for which the Department of Homeland Security serves as the lead agency. Foreign hackers breached U.S. government systems multiple times during her tenure.
“Our country will, at some point, face a major cybersecurity event that will have a serious effect on our lives, our economy and the everyday functioning of our society,” Napolitano said. “More must be done, and quickly.”
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