The Long ViewUnanswered questions

Published 9 January 2006

Some lessons from Katrina have been learned — for example, distributing urban security grants based not only on the threat of terror attacks, but also on the threat of natural disasters and pandemics. Other lessons may not have been absorbed as completely. This may be apparent in President Bush’s two recess appointment at DHS, both of which have drawn criticism as yet another example of the administration’s penchant for appointing politically connected individuals of questionable qualifications for key homeland security positions.

The first appointment is that of 36 year-old Julie Myers to head the nation’s immigration enforcement agency. Myers has no experience in immigration issues, and the only management experience listed on her resume is supervising three interns at the White House. Criticism of Myers is not limited to Democrats. In September, when her name first came up, the conservative National Review urged President Bush to withdraw Myers’ nomination. In an editorial, the magazine compared her to Michael Brown and called her “another unqualified nominee for a vital position in the Department of Homeland Security.” The magazine added: “The president’s supporters can look forward to serving in his administration, but certain key jobs ought to be reserved for candidates whose personal connections don’t outweigh their professional qualifications.” Myers is the niece of Richard Myers, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

The second recess appointment is that of Tracy Henke to manage DHS relations and coordination with state and local officials concerning natural disasters and terrorist attacks. “The fact is you’re putting political loyalty above professional experience,” said P. J. Crowley, director of homeland security at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank. “We’re at risk of seeing another Mike Brown.” Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), chair of the Senate Homeland Security committee, said that it was “unfortunate that the White House has circumvented the normal nomination process.” Henke got into hot water last year when she tried to change the conclusions of a Justice Department’s study which found that black and Hispanic motorists who were stopped for traffic violations were more likely than white motorists to be handcuffed, arrested, and face other sanctions. Henke decided to remove mention of the racial disparities in the department’s press release. When the statistician who was the department’s head of the bureau of statistics complained that Henke was exerting political pressure to change the study’s findings, that statistician was reassigned.

Security professionals complain that these two recess appointments may reflect lack of willingness on the part of the administration fully to absorb the lessons of Katrina. They point to several other questionable appointments at DHS and HHS, chief among them:

Patrick Rhode, chief of staff at FEMA. The 36 years advance man for Bush’s 2000 campaign says that he has covered disasters, even if only as a TV anchor for local network affiliates in Alabama and Arkansas, in which capacity he developed “an acute interest in what responders do in times of crises.”

Stewart Simonson is assistant secretary for public health and emergency preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Simonson’s background was not in public health, but rather in public transit. Even there experts question his performance: he was a top official at the debt-ridden, inefficient, and government-subsidized rail company Amtrak. Before that he was an adviser to former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, specializing in crime and prison policy.

The question here is not how capable, industrious, and dedicated these individuals are. The only question is the fit between their qualifications and the positions to which they were appointed. This question is yet to be answered.

-see New York Times report; see St. Louis Post-Dispatch report