Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano
WASHINGTON - Ask for her biggest disappointment after nearly five years heading the Department of Homeland Security, and Janet Napolitano mentions the failure of Congress so far to pass a comprehensive immigration bill.
For some opponents, she says, the argument that the U.S. border with Mexico needs to be more secure before moving ahead has become an excuse rather than a reason.
"We've driven the numbers down there to 40-year lows," Napolitano said in an interview with USA TODAY's "Capital Download," a weekly video newsmaker series, saying critics "keep moving the goal posts" on what would constitute a border that was sufficiently secure. She has been deeply involved in the immigration debate as head of a department that includes both border patrol and immigration enforcement.
"You know, if I heard them from people that were inclined to vote for something, I wouldn't be quite as cynical, but you hear the border-security argument raised by people generally who aren't going to vote for it anyway. So under the guise of border security, it's really a 'no' vote. So why don't they just say it's a 'no' vote?"
Ask Napolitano for her proudest achievement as the longest-serving head of DHS, created in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and she lists among other things improvements in the department's response to natural disasters, citing as evidence the effort after Superstorm Sandy this year.
Her last day on the job is Friday. At the end of the month, she takes over as president of the University of California, where she says her goal is to make it "the best public university in the world." While the job of leading a 10-campus university system undeniably is demanding, it presumably won't carry the same agenda of disasters (hurricanes and floods, border control and air safety, flu pandemics and more) that she has faced at Homeland Security.
"It is constant; it's a 24/7 deal," she said. When she opens her briefing book each day with a rundown on the day's developments, she has a standing joke with her briefer: "No sunshine and kitty-cats today," she'll say. "No, we don't get the sunshine and kitty-cats."
She spotlights two looming concerns for her successor, who hasn't been named.
The first is the prospect of a massive cyber attack that would disable "the core, critical infrastructure of the country." That could include the electrical grid, telecommunications, water systems. "All these things that are network-dependent, all the things that you and I rely on and take for granted until they're gone," she said. "If you want to know what it's like to be off the grid and be dependent on it, you should have been in New York or New Jersey after Sandy."
The second is the possibility of having "major climatic events - you know, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires - but not just one at a time but several major ones at a time in different parts of the country." Increasingly catastrophic weather events reflect the consequences of climate change, she said.
Napolitano, 55, and twice elected governor of Arizona, brushed aside questions about whether she might seek elective office again - say, the presidency. A former U.S. attorney and Arizona attorney general, she has also been mentioned as a potential Supreme Court nominee. She did address the value of having justices with experience beyond serving on the bench.
"I think it's important that the court represent the whole country," she said. "So usually when we say 'diversity' we think in terms of ethnicity, race, gender. But I think there's also something to geographic diversity, experiential diversity and the like. The present court is not a diverse court in that way."
And for Americans concerned about their personal safety, she had a final piece of advice as she adjusts to the new realities of daily life.
"I was governor before I was in this department, so I haven't driven a car in about 11 and a half years," she said. "So watch out."