Stalled border security nomination worries former commissioners

A gap in leadership at the Customs and Border Protection bureau has former commissioners concerned.

CBP ex-chiefs Ralph Basham and Robert Bonner and New York City Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly sent letters to key senators in February urging immediate action on the nomination of Alan Bersin to lead the bureau.

Basham, the most recent CBP commissioner, stepped down one year ago this week. He said he initiated the letters to Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, out of growing concern about vacancies at the top of the bureau, especially after acting commissioner Jayson Ahern retired as planned in early January, following the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Flight 253.

Baucus and Grassley are chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Finance Committee, which is responsible for holding hearings on the CBP nomination and bringing it to a Senate vote. A committee aide said staffers were reviewing Bersin's paperwork; no hearing has been scheduled. President Obama nominated him in September 2009.

"All of us believe the appointment deserves more focused attention and swift action in the manner of other critical national security nominations," the former commissioners wrote. Kelly was commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service, CBP's predecessor organization, from 1998 to 2001.

Bersin -- confirmed as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California during the Clinton administration -- has been serving as assistant secretary of international affairs at the Homeland Security Department for the past year. No lawmakers have publicly expressed any concerns about his qualifications.

"Unfortunately, this is another example of ineffective congressional oversight and how oversight is actually hobbling the department and potentially harming homeland security, rather than helping it," said Daniel J. Kaniewski, deputy director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at The George Washington University.

The Senate Finance Committee's jurisdiction over what essentially is a border security post speaks to the convoluted nature of congressional oversight, Kaniewski said. When Homeland Security was cobbled together from elements of 22 pre-existing agencies in 2003, more than 80 congressional committees and subcommittees retained authority over funding and oversight matters related to those agencies. The Finance Committee's responsibility is a legacy of its role in monitoring the now-defunct U.S. Customs Service.

On Jan. 3, after Ahern stepped down as acting commissioner, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano tapped David Aguilar, chief of the Border Patrol, to serve as acting deputy commissioner of CBP. There is no acting commissioner at CBP, a bureau spokesman said. Filling in for Aguilar in an acting capacity is Michael Fisher, formerly the San Diego sector chief patrol agent.

"I want to stress my strong support for the leadership [provided by] the career folks," Basham said. But Aguilar lacks the authority to make decisions necessary to move the agency forward.

"Because David Aguilar is acting deputy, he cannot make substantial moves within the organization," Basham said, adding Aguilar faces significant decisions regarding the bureau's 2011 budget. "It makes it extremely difficult to do the kind of proactive things that need to be done in an agency that is in a critical position," Basham said.

Kaniewski, a former adviser to President George W. Bush on homeland security issues, said the leadership vacancies at CBP pose a serious vulnerability. "I don't know [Bersin]. I've never met the man. I'm a Republican. I have no personal interest in seeing him confirmed other than knowing a critical Homeland Security agency is without any semblance of a leadership team."

"Agencies without leaders put all of us in a vulnerable position," Kaniewski said. "Nothing against the acting directors of any of these agencies, but if you are acting in a Senate-confirmed position and you're not going to be the nominee, you don't have the standing within your department, with other departments, or in the White House [to prompt change]. You just don't."

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