(Rich Cooper/HSToday)

PERSPECTIVE: Nielsen Shows Leadership Vision in Tough Climate

Before an audience of DHS veterans past and present, Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen laid out her thoughts Monday on where the second-largest Cabinet department was at and where it’s headed. In what was billed as her “State of Homeland Security” address, it was probably the friendliest audience she has encountered in some time.

Without any rhetorical interruptions, disruptive protesters, wagging fingers or any type of political posturing by questioners playing to the cameras for cable network coverage, she laid out a new strategic plan for the department she’s been given charge to lead. Nielsen presented a measured, sincere and resolute vision for a cross-functional homeland security enterprise that goes far beyond the 240,000 employees in her charge.

As expansive as her remarks on the State of Homeland Security were, it was hard not to remember the House Homeland Security Committee hearing of the week before with all of its verbal jabs, theatrics and raised voices. While I’m all for leaders being asked tough questions on even tougher issues, I have to say I found the entire atmosphere for the speech a welcome relief to what we’ve seen of late on the Hill and around the nation.

On this particular morning in Washington, there was no shouting, stern looks or political posturing in the environment set by Frank Cilluffo and Auburn University’s McCrary Institute and its Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. It was just a straight-up speech before a group of men and women who had either been awarded their varsity letters for their prior service in the homeland security arena or they were individuals still very much in the ongoing homeland fight sporting the current titles and uniforms to prove it.

Regardless of administration, every DHS secretary has an avalanche of noise and political distractions that surrounds their tenure in the job. Ridge had the chaos of bringing all the pieces together in the post-9/11 environment. Chertoff had hurricanes Katrina and Rita and plenty of FEMA fallout to address. Napolitano had the H1N1 outbreak at the outset of her term, followed by the Gulf Coast oil spill and the distractions of border and immigration issues that seemed to follow her. Johnson had to contend with replenishing a vacant leadership bench that Napolitano had left behind while beginning to earnestly shape the department’s cyber strategies into real operational tools. Kelly, the shortest tenured of any of the DHS secretaries, brought blunt talk to Congress that was long overdue for them to hear while serving an often-temperamental president who has defied any type of political norm.

And then there is Nielsen, who besides inheriting one of the toughest positions on the planet is having to work in probably the most toxic of political environments in more than a century. As she declared in her remarks, “Homeland security is President Trump’s number one priority.” It would be fruitless to argue with her on that point given the voluminous attention her boss brings to every homeland issue. From leading cheers for border walls and sweeping immigration pronouncements, to ordering travel bans and executing memorable disaster zone visits, this president has probably been more hands-on in homeland security than his two predecessors combined. And those were both hands-on homeland security-centric presidents, too.

But amid all of the deafening noise and political storms that have surrounded Nielsen since she took the S1 post over a year ago, her State of Homeland Security remarks gave her the opportunity to showcase where she wants to take the department. Having heard her make a number of speeches before, some of the themes she shared in the State of Homeland Security address weren’t exactly new. In fact, many of them echo some of the foundational principles the Department was built upon. But, frankly, it’s been hard to hear many of those points with all of the shouting, chaos, tweets and turmoil that have gone on the past several years.

The photographic visuals that have narrated homeland security for the past 24 months – widescale border apprehensions, separated families, holding facilities, human trafficking, acts of hate and violence, Russian election tampering, widespread fires, biblically destructive floods and storm – as that entire slide show flips through your mind, it can’t help but generate a sense of fatigue and exhaustion in anyone.

But for one brief Monday morning in Washington, the person charged with driving the operation was given a moment to lay out her thoughts, offer blunt candor (“the threats we face are graver than at any time since 9/11”) and applaud those who are in the trenches on her team working to secure the homeland.

There are plenty of items in her remarks with which the secretary’s critics will find fault and undoubtedly many of them will seize upon those points as they go after her for what she is or is not doing on a particular issue. But this was Nielsen’s moment to shine. Her moment to show what she is writing in the chapter of the department’s history and, in that brief moment, free of tweets and other distractions, she got to show her leadership vision. Not what she inherited from her predecessors, but what she is casting for the department’s present and future.

She’s in the toughest job in Washington, working for the most erratic of executives, in a position that no one envies (or covets) at all. And in the moment of sanity that was afforded to her, she laid out a plan and vision that, if followed, will secure the things we treasure most about the homeland. My deepest hope is she’s given the latitude and ability to make that happen. Because what she shared tells me that she’s more than earned that right and respect.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications & Outreach for the Space Foundation and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. Cooper is also a former Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute and has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, SAS and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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