The Department of Homeland Security is tasked with keeping the US safe, from securing the country’s borders to protecting against attacks on its electrical grids and thwarting terrorism attacks. One of its biggest challenges in recent months has come from the White House itself: Since Donald Trump took office in January, dozens of top jobs have been left unassigned, hollowing out the massive agency.
Trump is scheduled to give a sweeping speech on the US’s national security later today that will emphasize economic competition with China and “rogue nations,” officials say. But the administration’s neglect of the DHS poses separate problems.
From the department’s chief of staff to literally every leadership position in its “Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction” office, key roles have been left unfilled in the eleven months since Trump took office.
It’s not for lack of trying: Current and former DHS employees tell Quartz that acting secretary Elaine Duke did attempt to fill crucial senior positions, after former head General John Kelly left to become the White House chief of staff in July. But Duke’s recommendations for top officials were ignored or rebuffed by the White House, they said.
The DHS referred questions about the hiring situation to the White House’s Office of Personnel Management, which referred Quartz back to DHS and said it had no further comment.
DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who earned a reputation as a fierce gatekeeper to Trump at the White House, was sworn in on Dec. 8—but has so far seemed focused on reducing immigration and the border wall, according to her public appearances. Here’s an incomplete list of the positions she needs to fill with permanent staff, according to the agency’s own website:
- Chief of staff
- Chief financial officer—responsible for liasing with Congress on special funding, as in for hurricanes and other disasters
- Head of the National Protection & Programs Directorate, or NPPD. The 3,000 employee, 230-office department is responsible for everything from cybersecurity to making sure no one poisons America’s water supply or tampers with its electrical grid.
- Head of the Office of Strategy, Policy, & Plans. The office develops policy, coordinates the US’s security activities oversees, collects immigration data, and issues visa waivers, among other things. Within the department, 11 of 19 senior positions are vacant or filled temporarily.
- Deputy administrator, Federal Emergency Management Authority. This official acts as a sort of chief operating officer for the disaster agency, coordinating funding, some 2,600 full-time staff and thousands of temporary workers brought in as needed.
- Head of the Office of Partnership and Engagement. The office coordinates with state and local governments and law enforcement, like the New York Police Department and Port Authority officials.
- All the leadership in the “Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction” office. The office is missing a permanent head, deputy, and chief medical officer.
Some positions, like the NPPD head, are political positions that need to be voted on by the Senate. All of them need to be filled by people who have been given “Secret” clearance by the US Office of the Chief Security Officer, a process that involves extensive background checks and can take months.
There are many more open spots at the DHS now than there was at this time in Barack Obama’s first term, former and current DHS officials told Quartz. Obama’s DHS secretary Janet Napolitano, was sworn in the day after his inauguration, and remained with the agency for nearly five years.
“There’s always a little push and pull between the president and the agencies,” said a current DHS employee, noting that it is nevertheless unusual for the acting secretary to stymied in hiring by the White House.
“If you don’t have people, you can’t carry out your mission,” the employee said, adding that the hurricanes that FEMA had dealt with so far this year would be enough to stress a fully-staffed DHS.