An exodus of top-level officials from the Department of Homeland Security is undercutting the agency’s ability to stay ahead of a range of emerging threats, including potential terrorist strikes and cyberattacks, according to interviews with current and former officials.
Over the past four years, employees have left DHS at a rate nearly twice as fast as in the federal government overall, and the trend is accelerating, according to a review of a federal database.
The departures are a result of what employees widely describe as a dysfunctional work environment, abysmal morale, and the lure of private security companies paying top dollar that have proliferated in Washington since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The department’s terrorism intelligence arm, for example, has cycled through six directors during the Obama administration, decimating morale and contributing to months-long delays in releasing intelligence reports, according to interviews and government reports.
A parade of high-level departures, on top of other factors, has meanwhile helped slow the rollout of key cybersecurity initiatives, including a program aimed at blocking malicious software before it can infiltrate civilian government computers, former officials say.
With the country facing a crisis of unaccompanied minors crossing the southwest border in recent months, the pair of DHS agencies responsible for tackling this problem have been hindered by turnover of top officials. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, for instance, has had six commissioners under President Obama, four of them in a caretaker role because they were not confirmed by the Senate.
And at the Transportation Security Administration, a DHS agency created after 9/11 to enhance airport security, the hemorrhaging of both senior and junior personnel has “had a tremendous effect,’’ said Kenneth Kasprisin, a former acting TSA head who left the agency in May.
“You cannot sustain a high level of security operations when you have that kind of turnover,’’ he said, attributing the defections to “a toxic culture” and “terrible” morale.
As evidence of the toll this is taking, Kasprisin cited the results of agency tests in which undercover operatives try to sneak weapons or explosives through airport security. He said security employees are increasingly missing the contraband, with the frequency of failures reaching a “frightening” level.
Homeland security officials acknowledge the challenges, which come at a time when the United States is facing potential threats from al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.
Before his December confirmation, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson called vacancies and morale his top priorities and said the department faced “a leadership vacuum . . . of alarming proportions.’’
Since then, Johnson has won praise from lawmakers for taking steps to improve morale and retain employees, such as restarting an internal awards program and increasing training. The Senate has confirmed 10 top DHS officials in recent months, reducing a top-level vacancy rate that had reached 40 percent.
“Morale has been low in the department for quite a number of years, and it is our responsibility to address it, and we are in fact addressing it,’’ said Alejandro Mayorkas, the department’s deputy secretary. He said DHS has retained a consulting firm, Deloitte, to develop recommendations to improve morale.
Mayorkas stressed that the churn of personnel has not affected the department’s ability to protect the country. But, he acknowledged, “instability of leadership is not necessarily a galvanizing force for employees.’’
The department’s woes date to the George W. Bush administration. Within a few years after DHS began operations in 2003, senior-level vacancy rates were already high and many top officials were leaving the fledgling department for jobs with private security companies. Among the most prominent is the Chertoff Group, a security consulting firm led by former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff, which employs so many former officials it is known in homeland security circles as a “shadow DHS.’’
Private-sector salaries for high-level career officials, especially cybersecurity experts, can be double or triple the roughly $180,000 they can make at DHS.
During the Obama years, the outflow of personnel has accelerated, according to the FedScope database of federal employees maintained by the Office of Personnel Management. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of annual departures of permanent employees from DHS increased 31 percent, compared with a 17 percent increase for the government overall.
Members of the Senior Executive Service — the government’s top career managers — also are leaving DHS at a much higher rate. In 2013, SES departures were up 56 percent from the year before. By contrast, the rate for the government as a whole was virtually unchanged.
Chet Lunner, a former deputy undersecretary in the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis, recalls the time a high-level colleague realized his phone number was wrong on his DHS business card. This was no small matter. The colleague was the person local officials were told to call with critical questions, such as whether someone police arrested had ties to terrorists. No one was calling.
The official asked administrators for new business cards, Lunner recounted. “They say, ‘You can’t have them. We have a policy that we only give out new business cards every 26 weeks.’ ’’
In small and not-so-small ways, some unique to DHS and others not, the department can be an infuriating, exhausting place to work, numerous former and current officials say. The frustrations reflect the fundamental wiring of the department, which was created by plucking 22 autonomous agencies from across the government and welding them into one.
Today, employees describe a stifling bureaucracy made up of agencies with clashing employee cultures and overtaxed by high-pressure responsibilities and relentless congressional carping. It can take many months to hire someone and weeks to get supplies as basic as a whiteboard.
Many former and current officials said the most burdensome part of working for DHS is the demands of congressional oversight. More than 90 committees and subcommittees have some jurisdiction over DHS, nearly three times the number that oversee the Defense Department. Preparing for the blizzard of hearings and briefings, officials say, leaves them less time to do their jobs.
“It’s a very dysfunctional environment, the hardest I’ve ever worked in,’’ said one former senior Obama administration DHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal operations. “There were certainly times where you would say, ‘I just got the crap kicked out of me, and I’m making way less than I can make in the private sector.’ ’’
Surveys of employee morale show it has plunged to new lows in the past few years. According to the Partnership for Public Service’s annual “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” survey, DHS ranked dead last among large agencies last year.
Some of the most politically sensitive jobs are in the immigration realm, where the department’s performance is fodder for partisan wrangling. Despite intense concern in both parties over immigration policy, Customs and Border Protection went five years without a confirmed commissioner until R. Gil Kerlikowske received Senate approval in March. A series of other personnel moves around the same time have meant that the agency, which has critical border-security responsibilities, has been riddled with vacancies.
Most of those vacancies have been filled by officials in an acting capacity, but personnel experts consider that only a stopgap measure. “As an ‘acting,’ you’re a caretaker, not a change agent,’’ said Steve Atkiss, chief of staff for Customs and Border Protection in the Bush administration and a founding partner of Command Consulting Group, a D.C.-based security consulting firm.
While DHS officials say their efforts to secure the border have not been affected, former officials said the leadership vacuum at the border agency has slowed decision-making and made it harder to find creative solutions to pressing problems.
“When you have a proliferation of ‘actings,’ a lot of hard decisions don’t get made with the same level of regularity,’’ said a former senior Obama administration DHS official.
In early 2010, the DHS hierarchy gathered to discuss a report the agency was preparing about its mission. A top official looked around the table and asked who felt they were in charge of the department’s counterterrorism role.
Five people raised their hands, said a person who attended the meeting.
DHS’s mission has never been entirely clear. Nowhere has this been more nettlesome than at the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis. The 2002 law creating DHS outlined a powerful intelligence role for the department, but much of that authority was lost during the Bush administration to the FBI and other agencies. The DHS intelligence office, officially created in 2007, instead has come to focus on issuing reports and coordinating with state and local authorities.
For a time, the office operated relatively smoothly. But after its leaders started leaving, it was unable to resist what former DHS officials said were even more power grabs by other agencies. Morale plunged.
By 2010, so many people had left because of “unstable leadership’’ that the team assigned to study Islamist extremists declined from about two dozen people to four or five, recalled Thomas Barnes, a former DHS intelligence analyst. “It decimated us,’’ he said.
Barnes and other former analysts said the office starting overlooking intelligence.
In late 2009, Barnes told his bosses about a new threat, an extremist group gaining notoriety in Nigeria. “No one was interested,’’ he said. “It was way off their radar because we didn’t have any bodies.’’ The group was Boko Haram, which seized international attention this year by kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls and is seen as a potential threat to the United States.
A bipartisan Senate study in 2012 concluded that understaffing and turnover in the DHS intelligence office were contributing to dangerous delays. The study found that hundreds of reports being prepared by intelligence analysts working with state and local officials on counterterrorism were being released months late, at times based on outdated information.
When the intelligence office’s director, Caryn Wagner, stepped down in 2012 after less than three years in the job, the position proved hard to fill. At least five people turned down the post, according to people familiar with the search. “Nobody wanted it. It’s the worst job in the intelligence community,’’ one person said.
Mayorkas, the DHS deputy secretary, declined to comment on the office’s performance, but he praised its latest undersecretary, Francis X. Taylor, confirmed in April. “He’s a superb leader,’’ Mayorkas said. “He will bring morale to where it should be.’’
Even as it wrestles with turnover in the intelligence office, DHS has been hit with defections in another vital area: cybersecurity.
In one nine-month period between June 2011 and March 2012, for example, four senior DHS cybersecurity officials quit and one retired — all headed to the private sector.
The departures came as the department battled the Pentagon and the National Security Agency over who should have responsibility for protecting critical private-sector networks and for responding to industry requests for assistance. DHS was pressing to enshrine its authority in law.
“It became so hard to advocate for DHS to be placed in charge and given more responsibility because people were constantly leaving,’’ recalled Jacob Olcott, a former House Homeland Security Committee aide.
The cybersecurity bill died, a victim of strong opposition from industry and its backers on the Hill.
The continuing stream of departures has at times hampered the department’s ability to combat cyberattacks aimed at civilian federal networks and to serve as the federal point of contact for critical industries, such as energy and transportation, and for state and local governments.
The high turnover has meant that at times the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center struggles to carry out its mission of analyzing attacks on federal and private computer systems and responding to them.
Just last month, Larry Zelvin, who had directed the center for two years, and another top DHS cybersecurity official left for corporate jobs.
The constant churn, former officials said, also exacerbated turf battles and other problems that delayed Einstein 3, a program to block malicious software before it enters the dot-gov networks. The program is now scheduled to be completed perhaps by next year.
“If you look at the last six, seven years, there’s been enormous turnover,” said Michael Brown, a former Navy rear admiral and high-level DHS cybersecurity official who retired in 2012. “Absolutely, it’s a problem for consistency and continuity.”
Senior managers leave for several reasons, including the grueling tempo of the job, said Brown, now a senior official at RSA, a cybersecurity firm. The pace was so relentless that the wife of one senior cybersecurity official used to put a place setting at the dinner table for his BlackBerry.
There’s also frustration over the lack of clear authority from Congress to oversee cybersecurity. Without this authority, DHS officials find it difficult to work with private industry when, for instance, they offer help to companies to stem a computer breach.
“It would take three days just to explain what DHS’s mission was, where the FBI can just come in and everybody knows what they do,” said a former official. “It really impeded our ability to do our job.”
Legislation is pending that would spell out DHS’s authority in the cyber sphere.
Those who have left also say they grew weary of fighting to get the simplest things done.
“My cyber folks were spending more time on human resource issues and acquisition than they were analyzing technical data to defend and protect networks,” a former senior official said.
“DHS can’t keep anyone in cyber. They just can’t do it,’’ said another former DHS official. “You can make $150,000 protecting the nation or you can make $650,000. Which one are you going to do?’’
Dan Keating contributed to this report.