Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano gestures as she gives her farewell address at the National Press Club in Washington.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano gestures as she gives her farewell address at the National Press Club in Washington. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Napolitano Defends Record, Prescribes Advil for Successor

Final speech as Homeland Security chief lauds agency’s agility and flexibility.

Signing off after four and half years atop the Homeland Security Department, Janet Napolitano on Tuesday praised her 240,000 employees for achieving new “agility and flexibility” during the past decade’s responses to terrorism, border threats and natural disasters.

She also tweaked Congress for inaction on immigration and bequeathed an “open letter” detailing coming new challenges to her still-unnamed successor.

“We’ve seen a tremendous payoff from the nation’s investment in Homeland Security over the past decade,” Napolitano said in a speech at the National Press Club delivered as she prepared to assume duties as president of the University of California. “We are a stronger, more effective department because of lessons learned” from the major crisis of her tenure, such as the H1N1 flu threat, the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill, drug cartel violence, terrorists threats, hurricanes, floods, “even an earthquake in Washington, D.C.”

The key, she said, “is to be flexible and agile while adapting to circumstances on the ground at home and abroad. We may not be able to stay ahead of all threats all the time,” she said, but the country must prepare ahead and address an even greater set of threats to “minimize their consequences. I believe we’re seeing that agility bear fruit in a positive way.”

Napolitano said she helped preside over 325 federal disaster declarations and 60 emergency declarations, and traveled to 40 countries on six continents. For every attack, potential threat and intelligence report, “we learn and we get stronger and more nimble,” she said.”

In last April’s Boston Marathon bombing, “we saw the worst in human nature, and then in the days that followed the best of humanity,” she said. The successful response by multiple federal, state and local agencies “was not accidental but a product of years of training based on scenarios that had been practiced to make sure no one center was overwhelmed.” Highest priority, she added, was assigned to state and local entities “who bear the immediate brunt” of such incidents. She praised the role of the Boston’s Medical Intelligence Center -- the only such center in the country -- and the role of the public in reporting tips and providing videos as part DHS’ “if you see something, say something” campaign now in place in 250 cities, transport systems and private enterprises.

On protecting travelers from terror threats, she said, “Our aviation system is now stronger and more resilient, and we know who is boarding aircraft and know more about those who seek to do us harm.” Napolitano described improvements in coordinating with foreign governments following the Christmas 2009 attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound aircraft by a Nigerian national. The following October, 190 countries signed an aviation security agreement for information sharing, she said, and her department took further steps to improve checks of cargo following discovery of a bomb hidden in a printer cartridge.

Lessons applied from the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans included “prepositioning and early outreach” to cities to make sure they have adequate funds for preparations and overtime pay, the secretary said. Hence the response in October 2012 to Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey was “swift, flexible, adaptable and united, which has made all the difference in our ability to speed in resources for the rebuilding,” she said.

Flexible application of transport regulations as well as partnerships with nonprofits such as the Red Cross and with federal agencies such as the Defense Department sped up rescue and damage assessments by the Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hundreds of employees from the Transportation Security Administration came to New York to help while lodging in Merchant Marine vessels, she noted.

U.S. border protection, “though imperfect, remains a top priority,” Napolitano said, and “the border is now better staffed and protected than at any time in history.” Illegal crossings are at a 40-year low, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection executed priorities by taking serious criminals out of circulation, combatting human trafficking and focusing less on children of immigrants, or “dreamers.”

“Congress had a chance but failed to garner 60 votes for cloture” in passing a bill to allow child arrivals a permanent residency, so she used her own authority to defer action and approve 430,000 applications from such children, she said. “But we still need to construct a more flexible and fair immigration system,” she added, “and there’s no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform.”

Addressing her eventual successor, Napolitano predicted a “major cyber event that will have a major effect on the economy and everyday functions of society.” And she forecast more “weather-related events as a result of climate change.”

The next secretary should “continue to integrate the department—to pursue what I call DHS 3.0” and pursue more “risk-based, intelligence-driven security,” such as the TSA’s Pre-Check program for pre-approved airline passengers, she said. The successor should also forge “good relationships with all partners,” including Congress, to assure adequate resources even in tough budget times and with the sequester.

“You will also need a large bottle of Advil,” she counseled. “And though this job is literally a 24/7 job, it is one of the most rewarding. What you do matters to the lives of citizens across the nation.”