Leadership vacuum complicates correcting CBP excesses

July 18, 2013

Government departments with a leadership void confront an array of organizational problems, but of all the management functions likely to deteriorate, oversight suffers the most, said Craig Spence, AOPA vice president of operations and international affairs, and a former official of the Department of Homeland Security.

The lack of oversight caused by numerous vacancies at the top, and by other officials serving in “caretaker” roles may have allowed a DHS subordinate agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, to overstep the bounds of its police functions in confrontations with law-abiding pilots, and have its actions go unnoticed, he said. Spence, who also serves as secretary general of the International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations (IAOPA), held numerous positions within DHS, most recently as program manager for Geospatial and Aerospace Systems in the DHS’s Office of Operations Coordination.

That lack of oversight could now be exacerbated by the imminent departure of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, who will step down from her post in September.

Appearing on AOPA Live This Week, Spence said it was possible that incidents of law-abiding general aviation pilots being stopped for questioning and having their aircraft searched without cause by CBP agents may have proliferated as oversight of the agency faded.

The Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s post—essentially a department’s internal conscience—is currently vacant, and “that’s one of the last stopgaps for oversight of the department. Now with that missing, your next oversight is Congress, and that’s where we’ll be looking at for our problem with the searches,” he said.

DHS’s deputy inspector general, Charles K. Edwards, is the subject of a Senate committee’s investigation for alleged abuses of authority.

Vacancies are one source of concern, but leadership posts held by acting appointees also can lose their effectiveness. There is a tendency in government for acting overseers—often career civil servants—to assume a caretaker role, striving for “smooth sailing until the new boss comes in,” he said.

A top DHS post held by an acting official that is little known to pilots but critical to department operations is the chief privacy officer’s position. The chief privacy officer “analyzes the rules, policies and procedures that are utilized by the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that the privacy of U.S. citizens is maintained.” Without a strong privacy advocate in place, the “pendulum could swing away” from aggressive protection of the rights of citizens, he said. Jonathan Cantor is the DHS’s acting chief privacy officer.

During the interview, AOPA Live This Week Executive Producer Warren Morningstar asked Spence if an acting chief of an agency with police authority that has become more aggressive “might not be willing to rein them in.”

“May not even know what’s going on,” Spence responded.

He added that an acting supervisor might be the victim of a “fire hose effect” when trying to get a grip on managing an unfamiliar agency’s operations.

An AOPA request to the DHS public affairs office for a list of top posts in the department and its agencies that are currently vacant or filled in an acting capacity had not received a response by the deadline for AOPA ePilot. However, several news reports in the wake of Napolitano’s resignation announcement addressed the DHS management issue, with one noting that a “hole” existed in 15 of 45 leadership positions, and with other top employees leaving the department soon, including the secretary’s chief of staff. Numerous posts were filled in an acting capacity.

Acting Deputy Secretary Rand Beers was expected to run DHS temporarily unless the Senate acts to confirm other leadership nominees. Napolitano plans to depart in September to assume leadership of the University of California.

In addition to CBP, agencies on the DHS organizational chart include U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Transportation Security Administration.