War Stories

First, Fire All the Lawyers

It’s time to put a manager in charge of the Department of Homeland Security.

Not management material 
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Not management material

Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security, said last week that he has a plan to fix FEMA and the other tangled branches of his colossal, jerry-strung bureaucracy. But a large part of the department’s problem is Chertoff himself—not the man personally, but his professional background, the way he’s been accustomed to dealing with problems, and his tendency to surround himself with like-minded friends.

The Department of Homeland Security was cobbled together—amid the panicked demands to “do something” in the wake of 9/11—from 22 federal agencies holding a combined budget of $40 billion and a payroll of 183,000 employees. To be in charge of such a labyrinth may be an inherently hapless chore, but whoever gets the assignment should be, at minimum, a competent and creative manager—preferably someone with experience at running mergers and acquisitions, since the department is, in essence, one big, unwieldy M&A.

Yet before Chertoff took the job last January, he had spent most of his career as a federal prosecutor—a good one, by most accounts, but it was never clear how that qualified him to manage the massive effort of protecting the nation from terrorism and Mother Nature.

During the 2004 campaign, President George W. Bush often ridiculed the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, for believing that terrorists could be fought by lawyers. The criticism distorted Kerry’s views. But the baffling irony is that, a mere two months after the election, Bush entrusted the war on terror’s home front to … a lawyer.

Once at the post, Chertoff proceeded to appoint other lawyers—some of them associates or underlings from his days at the Justice Department—to key advisory positions:

  • His chief of staff, John Wood, was a counselor to the attorney general.
  • His assistant secretary for policy, Stewart Baker, was a lawyer whose only substantive experience has been to serve on a commission that endorsed ballistic-missile defense, the one aspect of homeland security in which DHS plays no role at all.
  • His nominee for director of immigration and customs enforcement, Julie Myers, was Chertoff’s chief of staff at the Justice Department, and she recently married John Wood (see above), who is Chertoff’s current chief of staff. She is utterly, and somewhat notoriously, inexperienced for the job. (If confirmed, she will succeed Michael Garcia, who worked for two years with Chertoff in the assistant U.S. attorney’s office in New York.)

There are talented, experienced, qualified civil servants toiling in the cubbyholes of DHS. But the top managers—Chertoff’s entourage of fellow lawyers and cronies—are the gatekeepers, the ones who assess and filter the information flowing up the chain of command and who issue the orders back down.

As a result, those talented civil servants are getting fed up; many are leaving. According to a widely reported survey of morale at 30 large federal agencies, the Department of Homeland Security ranks 29th. (Morale is lower still only at the Small Business Administration.)

One high-ranking official, who two years ago eagerly transferred to DHS from another department, told me, “There’s not a lot of inspired leadership here. Things aren’t getting done, policy’s not going anywhere. I go home at night, I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything. Just about everyone I know here feels the same way.”

A problem, according to this official (and to some of the department’s overseers on Capitol Hill), is that Chertoff and his entourage are too caught up in procedure; they possess no vision, take no risks, and tolerate no bold ideas. In short, they act like who they are—federal lawyers.

Chertoff recently said, in response to criticism over his handling of Hurricane Katrina, “I’m not a hurricane expert.” He’s right, and nobody should expect him to be. But he was wrong in thinking that all he had to do, as a result, was to leave the task to the director of FEMA, Michael Brown. Had Chertoff been a good manager—in other words, had he been a good match for his job—he would have delegated to Brown, but he also would have leaned over Brown’s shoulder, asked questions, made sure that the answers made sense and that the orders were being followed. Long before Katrina happened, he would have hired assistant secretaries and chiefs of staff who knew what the right questions were—who knew at least the rudiments of the department’s mission and operations.

Last January, after Bernard Kerik—Bush’s initial and utterly mind-blowing pick for homeland security secretary—self-destructed in blazes, I wrote a column asking Slatereaders to pick a proper successor. Their favorite, by an overwhelming plurality: Jack Welch, the retired CEO of General Electric.

It was an inspired choice. Welch had transformed a quaint $12 billion company into a $300 billion global growth machine. In his 20 years of running GE, it acquired more than 600 companies with a workforce of 276,000, and he molded nearly all of them into sector leaders. His management style was disciplined but also decentralized, nonhierarchical, and results-oriented. His key concept was the “boundary-less” sharing of ideas across all divisions of the empire. Isn’t this just what DHS needed—a manager who sets firm standards, lets his experts do their job, coordinates their resources, integrates their functions, and eliminates redundancies and deadwood?

I called Welch at the time to ask whether he’d take the job if it were offered to him. He good-naturedly hemmed and hawed, but he didn’t say “No.” More intriguing still, just last month, in the aftermath of Katrina, Welch wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal titled “The Five Stages of Crisis Management,” in which he spelled out how business principles can be applied to homeland security. Could it be? Does he want the job? Would George W. Bush dare ask him?