Homeland Security chief talks cyberthreats, immigration, and baseball

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Editor's note: This article is part of a National Journal series on the 25 most influential women in Washington.

National Journal visited Janet Napolitano in the office she calls her “bat cave.” It’s decorated with mementos from her travels as Homeland Security secretary and former roles including Arizona governor. There’s a saddle mounted in the corner, a goodbye gift from the governor of Sonora, Mexico, to Napolitano, the first U.S. governor to go on a cabalgata, a 4,000-person-strong, seven-hour horseback ride across Mexico's countryside. Napolitano also has a piece of the World Trade Center on her desk, and a handful of baseball cards plucked from destruction in the wake of tornadoes in Georgia. “You go to some of these disaster sites and you realize how strong human beings are,” Napolitano said. “You also realize that when Mother Nature strikes, it’s just an awesome thing.” Edited excerpts follow.

NJ: How different is being Homeland Security secretary than state governor? Was there some moment when you realized, "We're not in Arizona anymore?"

NAPOLITANO: Oh, there are so many. I literally finished delivering the State of the State address in Arizona in 2009, and delivering the budget, and was picked up by a plane and brought here at 3 in the morning so I could be in some briefing meeting at the White House, and then I went to some meeting with the vice president-elect about bioterrorism. From that moment on, I said, "It’s different back here in Washington." … And you’ve got to wear a coat in the winter.

NJ: Which threat keeps you up at night?

NAPOLITANO: The two areas I’ve spent the most time on in the last year have been aviation and cyber. Aviation because it’s an ongoing threat vector; it’s a very big international system absolutely critical to the economy of the United States and the world. And cyber because it’s the fastest-growing, the one that’s changing the most, where we’re really now just starting to develop the institutions necessary to deal with it.

NJ: What more can the U.S. do to combat cyberthreats?

NAPOLITANO: We really need to involve the private sector. They control 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure. They need to accept having some performance standards, some responsibility and accountability for those standards.... I hope Congress moves on a cybersecurity bill [this] month.

NJ: Does the publicity of the recent New York Times report about the U.S. cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear sites open the door for countries, terrorists, or hackers to more easily justify their own cyberattacks?

NAPOLITANO: Regardless of that report, I think the world has to address cyber and really look at where does it fit into the conventional laws of war and international law and international agreements. I was [recently] with some of my international colleagues in Copenhagen, and that’s one of the problems we’re all grappling with: There’s nothing to hang your hat on from a legal perspective, because almost every major cyber matter you deal with crosses national boundaries.

NJ: What are some of your biggest priorities?

NAPOLITANO: I’m involved heavily in making sure we administer this new program initiative where young people who were brought to the country, through no fault of their own really, who have been raised here, are allowed to stay in the country. Deferred action for two years. Since we don’t really know the numbers of kids we’re dealing with, planning for that is really quite challenging. We want to do it, and do it right. I think that, and hurricanes and forest fires, will probably occupy most of the summer.

NJ: Do you think the "show me your papers" provision of Arizona’s immigration law which was not struck down by the Supreme Court invites racial profiling?

NAPOLITANO: The Court basically threw down the gauntlet and said: "It better not." I think the challenge for law-enforcement departments is to realize this is not an invitation for racial profiling. If it becomes an invitation, and it becomes acted on that way, I think the Court will shut it down.

NJ: You were "Most Likely to Succeed" in high school and valedictorian at Santa Clara University in California. Did you ever think you would be doing something like this?

NAPOLITANO:  I always hoped that someday I would be able to go into public service. Whether I would go into elected office or national politics, I had no idea. Even in college I was a Truman Scholar, a scholarship given to people who intend to go into public service. One of my first political memories was as a kid, watching the Watergate hearings on television. I knew all the players like you’d know all the players on a baseball team. To hear [Sen.] Howard Baker [R-Tenn.], [Reps.] Barbara Jordan [D-Texas], Elizabeth Holtzman [D-N.Y.] speak to these matters, I thought that was compelling. At one time I thought I wanted to be a high school band director.... But I grew out of that.

NJ: You’re leading a very male-dominated department. Any challenges?

NAPOLITANO: As a U.S. attorney, as an attorney general, as a governor—those are all male-dominated professions. Law enforcement and security issues are very male-dominated. Too often when I’m at a meeting, I’m the only woman at the main table. I’d like to see that change. I think we ought to be mentoring young women, making sure they have access to experiences that qualify them for leadership positions and helping the next generation move up.

NJ: What advice would you give to young women?

NAPOLITANO: I would say that this is very rewarding work. There’s a lot of work to be done. We need brains and creativity and talent and energy and problem-solving ability and everything you could imagine. We need their talents at the table. I think the security fields are really wide open.

NJ: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

NAPOLITANO: It sounds like such a cliché, but: In the end, be yourself.

NJ: What’s that baseball over there? Looks like it was signed by Derek Jeter.

NAPOLITANO: That’s from when I threw out the first pitch in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 11, 2009. It was the night that Jeter tied the Yankee all time record for hits. Here was the problem from a realistic standpoint: I can’t throw…. So these guys [I work with] were paralyzed with fear, worried I was going to dribble the ball down to the home plate. They took me out in the park to throw me balls and have me throw them back. I’m taking out everything. I took out the air conditioning thing. I took out somebody’s car. There were balls going all over the place. It was very dangerous. Then we do this whole moving day, 9/11 in New York City. It’s raining. I go out on the field and there’s 38,000 people; it’s a little intimidating. Jorge Posada was catching. [I was too close so he motions] "back, back, back" until he finally gets me to the start of the mound. I threw the ball and he caught it.

NJ: What else do you do when you’re not working?

NAPOLITANO: I like going to listen to music. I like going to the theater. I just saw [The Gershwins’] Porgy and Bess in New York. I go to a lot of opera—much to the Secret Service’s dismay. They’ve gotten to be quite expert at opera. I read a lot. I just finished reading Path to Power, which is Robert Caro’s latest volume, on Lyndon Johnson. And I’m now reading Diane Keaton’s autobiography, which is fabulous by the way, and it’s paperback.

NJ: Why do you always read one fiction and nonfiction at the same time?

NAPOLITANO: Some nights I just can’t handle nonfiction. You just want a mystery or something. Candy for the mind.
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