Homeland Security Staffing Problems

The Department of Homeland Security suffers from under staffing at the senior levels as well as political infighting and poor morale, according to a front page piece in today’s WaPo.

The Bush administration has failed to fill roughly a quarter of the top leadership posts at the Department of Homeland Security, creating a “gaping hole” in the nation’s preparedness for a terrorist attack or other threat, according to a congressional report to be released today.

Despite the politically charged lede, however, it’s pretty clear that the problems go much deeper than an administration not appointing people. The lion’s share of the vacancies appear to be in newly-created positions and the report lumps in “presidential, senior executive and other high-level appointments.” Most of these, therefore, are routine civil service billets.

“One of the continuing problems appears to be the over politicization of the top rank of Department management,” concludes the report by the committee, chaired by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.). “This could lead to heightened vulnerability to terrorist attack.” In an interview, Thompson said that vacancies have weakened morale and reflect an over-reliance on contractors. He also called the report a warning “that we can expect more vacancies to occur than what we have been accustomed to” at the close of the administration, when many top personnel will leave their posts.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, agreed that the inability to fill jobs is creating problems within DHS offices. While walking in his district yesterday, Davis said, he met constituents employed at an immigration agency who described lower morale because of the vacancies.

Of course, politicization goes both ways. In many cases, the administration is submitting appointments and having them blocked by Congress which, last I checked, is also a political entity. My hunch is that some of the resistance legitimate questioning of cronyism and some are highly qualified individuals being blocked over ideology or held hostage in trade for pork barrel projects.

More interesting, though, is the issue of contractors:

The department faces high turnover because top officials are in demand in a private sector willing to pay lucrative salaries. It is heavily dependent on contractors, yet its staff to manage them is overstretched. Partisan political combat over homeland security issues has also made jobs less attractive.

Having worked until a year ago as a contractor for the Defense Department, I’m fully aware of this issue. In technical jobs, especially, most of the work is done by contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton, MITRE, SAIC, and others. The vagaries of the civil service make it very difficult to hire people at sufficiently high pay levels to be competitive in the market for highly sought after skills. It’s far easier to hire someone as a contractor than to get them past the personnel hoops, which favors those already in the system.

Further, there’s the issue of security clearance. Those who have high level clearance — only obtainable by having worked for the federal government in a position that requires access to highly classified material — are in incredibly high demand. Because getting a Top Secret – Sensitive Compartmented Information background check takes up to two years and is quite expensive, it’s virtually impossible to get hired unless one already has the clearance in hand. So, even low level DHS civil servants with a clearance can get hired by a big contracting company at a far higher pay rate than they can command inside the system, which requires the requisite time-in-grade in order to apply for promotion.

DHS has the additional problem of being new and trying to merge agencies cobbled together from other departments. Morale is naturally going to be a problem given competing organizational cultures and genuine clashes over how best to do things. The constant reshuffling at the top as Congress and the administration try to figure out how to make this hybrid department work can not be helping, either.

None of these problems are likely to go away soon. They will almost certainly be with us well into the next administration, regardless of party.

UPDATE: R.J. Hillhouse has more on the contractor phenomenon in yesterday’s Post:

Over the past five years (some say almost a decade), there has been a revolution in the intelligence community toward wide-scale outsourcing. Private companies now perform key intelligence-agency functions, to the tune, I’m told, of more than $42 billion a year. Intelligence professionals tell me that more than 50 percent of the National Clandestine Service (NCS) — the heart, brains and soul of the CIA — has been outsourced to private firms such as Abraxas, Booz Allen Hamilton, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.

These firms recruit spies, create non-official cover identities and control the movements of CIA case officers. They also provide case officers and watch officers at crisis centers and regional desk officers who control clandestine operations worldwide. As the Los Angeles Times first reported last October, more than half the workforce in two key CIA stations in the fight against terrorism — Baghdad and Islamabad, Pakistan — is made up of industrial contractors, or “green badgers,” in CIA parlance.

Intelligence insiders say that entire branches of the NCS have been outsourced to private industry. These branches are still managed by U.S. government employees (“blue badgers”) who are accountable to the agency’s chain of command. But beneath them, insiders say, is a supervisory structure that’s controlled entirely by contractors; in some cases, green badgers are managing green badgers from other corporations.

What’s interesting here is that Hillhouse is alleging that decision-making functions are being outsourced. That wasn’t my experience at DoD, which rather clearly insisted that at least nominal authority be exercised by government personnel, either uniformed military officers or DoD civil servants. In practice, those people sometimes lacked the technical expertise do anything but rely on the expertise of their contractors. Still, there were never any contractors in the rating chain.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    James – check out Hillhouse’s blog here

    As for contractors being in the position to make decisions for the government, that depends on your definition. I see lots of contractors doing things awfully close to “representing” the government, and I’m not talking about SETAs or FFRDCs. Problem is that the government lacks skilled COTRs to keep an eye on their contractors and to rein them in when they begin to cross the line by representing government positions and directing others’ work. Some contractors play fast and loose because of their supposed expertise or connections with their sponsoring agencies. While not technically illegal, sometimes it gets very close.

  2. jem says:

    I have no direct information about the claims regarding the National Clandestine Service, but have encountered cases where a very small number of government personnel (as few as two or three) have dominion over multi-contractor teams of dozens. Some of those folks are designated SETA or are FFRDC personnel, while others are not under that sort of arrangement (they’re supposed to provide technical assistance, but with no explicit mandate to represent the government). However, if the non-SETA contractor is the only one in the meeting who “works for” the blue-badger with the responsibility, he/she is still likely to be asked to speak for the Agency (or at least the team he/she works with in the Agency).

    I’d rate the allegations as plausible…but that’s just a (partially-informed) opinion, not a statement of fact.

  3. DC Loser says:

    I am in that kind of situation that jem describes. Very small government team with lots of contractors. Sometimes our contractors just have to ask forgiveness later in order to get the job done.