High Level Employee Turnover at Homeland Security Plus Low Morale Is Making It Difficult to Deal With Threats

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on September 17, 2014. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on September 17, 2014. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Jerry Markon, Ellen Nakashima and Alice Crites