WASHINGTON (CN) – Laying bare a morale problem at the agency he used to oversee, former Inspector General John Roth testified Wednesday before Congress that leadership vacancies at the Department of Homeland Security have exacerbated fractures within the agency.
Though President Donald Trump has expressed a fondness for keeping administration officials on an acting capacity — “I like acting. It gives me more flexibility,” Trump said in January — Roth said temporary leadership renders Homeland Security unable to implement the reforms it needs to alleviate chronic problems.
“For DHS to mature as an organization and address the significant root causes of its shortfalls, it must have in place dedicated, long-term political leadership,” Roth said, testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee.
The hearing this morning follows Trump’s decision in April to withdraw his nomination of Ronald Vitiello to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stepped down next, followed out the door by Homeland Security Undersecretary Claire Grady and Secret Service Director Randolph Alles.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency meanwhile has been operating without an administrator as well, while the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration chief are both currently serving in acting capacities.
Noting that acting officials are barred from serving more than 210 days, Roth said they are often hesitant to make long-term, strategic decisions. Without the “stamp of legitimacy” of presidentially appointed officials, Roth also noted that acting officials tend to be less accountable and responsive, generally, to congressional oversight.
Indeed Trump noted in April, after withdrawing Vitiello’s nomination, that ICE was headed in a “tougher direction.”
Representative Yvette Clarke argued Wednesday that such comments make the president’s intent clear.
“Donald Trump, I believe, has created a leadership void at the Department of Homeland Security,” said Clarke, a New York Democrat. “And he has done so intentionally.”
Testifying alongside Roth, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said Homeland Security won’t be functioning cohesively anytime soon.
“They’re still a long way from having a unified, well-functioning organization,” Dodaro said.
To help unify the DHS components that have struggled with disparate missions since the agency’s inception, Dodaro suggested implementing a chief management officer who would transcend administrations.
But Dodaro said organizational transformation requires patience.
“These efforts to focus on fundamental management weaknesses are not going to get solved in a short period of time,” he said.
The morale problem among the rank and file needs sustained attention as well, Dodaro added.
Both Roth and Dodaro called for greater congressional oversight of DHS, saying it has been responsive to such efforts in the past.
Representative Peter King questioned Wednesday whether DHS had strayed from its prior focus on terrorism.
“The ultimate responsibility is to fight terrorism,” said King, a New York Republican. “I never want to go through another 9/11.”
King said he wants to ensure that terror groups like al-Qaida, or white supremacist groups, can’t launch terror attacks.
Roth said the focus on stopping such attacks has been there, but issues in planning, hiring, training and budgeting can stymie agency efforts in that arena.
“The ability to combat terrorism is only as effective as the ability of DHS to function as an organization,” Roth said.
Though the witnesses offered a dire assessment of the agency’s overall health during a roughly two-hour hearing Wednesday, Comptroller General Dodaro said the agency has nonetheless made improvements.
On Wednesday the Government Accountability Office released findings showing that DHS had adopted 75 percent of its recommendations to address challenges at the agency.
But the study notes that acting officials in eight positions requiring presidential appointment and Senate confirmation have been tasked with implementing some of the recommendations.
Those include strengthening cybersecurity and better managing climate change risks.
On the latter point, Dodaro said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has made improvements but can improve when it comes to dealing with multiple natural disasters simultaneously.
“More frequent, more intensive storms predicted by the National Climate assessment, is going to stretch its capabilities,” he said.
While Dodaro demurred when asked to compare the number of vacancies at DHS to prior administrations, he nonetheless expressed concern, noting that he’s seen a lot in his 46 years at the Government Accountability Office.
“I would say it’s in the upper areas of concern,” he said.