Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who is resigning next week, expressed disappointment Tuesday during her farewell remarks that Congress failed to pass a law providing a path to citizenship for many young immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
Her legacy includes managing the Obama administration's responses to foiled and successful terrorism attacks against the U.S., the Gulf oil spill disaster, other important changes to immigration policies, the Secret Service prostitution scandal and rampant cyber break-ins of U.S. government computers blamed on China and others.
She offered this advice to whoever succeeds her: "You will need a large bottle of Advil."
Napolitano, the third Homeland Security secretary, will leave Sept. 6 to take over as president of the University of California system. It is unclear when President Barack Obama will name a permanent successor or who that person will be. Rand Beers, the department's acting No. 2 is expected to become the acting secretary when Napolitano leaves.
With more than 240,000 employees, the Homeland Security Department is among Washington's most sprawling bureaucracies and includes immigration and intelligence offices, the Coast Guard, Secret Service, Transportation Security Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency and others. She popularized her catchphrase, "If you see something, say something."
"Some have said that being the secretary of DHS is the most thankless job in Washington. That is not true," she said. "No doubt, it's a very big and complex job. It's literally a 24/7 job. Yet, as my successor will soon learn, it's also one of the most rewarding jobs there is."
When she took office in early 2009 after her re-election as Arizona's governor, Napolitano made immigration reform a top priority and did not mention terrorism during her first appearance on Capitol Hill. But she presided as Homeland Security secretary during violent attacks against the United States, including the Boston Marathon bombings earlier this year, which killed three people. The federal government's review of its own performance in the attack — including whether it missed any signs before the bombings — is still pending.
An al-Qaida operative attempted to blow up a commercial jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. In the wake of failed attack Napolitano famously declared that the "system worked," although the Obama administration immediately ordered an urgent overhaul of its terror screening systems for travelers.
Napolitano said security improvements after the attempted bombing — and after a disrupted plot in 2010 to detonate bombs hidden inside printer cartridges aboard planes flying to the U.S. — have made the U.S. safer.
"We faced a threat. We responded," she said. "And we addressed the weaknesses in our systems. And while there is always more work to do, our aviation system is now stronger and more resilient."
Napolitano chided Congress for failing to pass the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to legal status for many young immigrants living in the United States illegally. The latest push for immigration reforms, which passed earlier this year in the Senate, now appears stalled in the House.
"Congress had a chance to give the so-called dreamers a way to stay in our country through the DREAM Act but, unfortunately, that legislation failed to garner the 60 votes need for cloture, falling just five votes short despite strong bipartisan support," Napolitano said. She said the administrative policy changes she made were "no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform, which is the only way to face the long-standing problems with our immigration system."
The Homeland Security Department is the government's lead agency for cybersecurity, and Napolitano was secretary during a period of rampant break-ins of U.S. government computers blamed on China's government and others. The department is soon to have its third deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity. In her remarks Tuesday, made only brief reference to the growing concern of a major cyberattack, which Napolitano said appeared inevitable.
"Our country will, at some point, face a major cyber event that will have a serious effect on our lives, our economy, and the everyday functioning of our society," Napolitano said. "While we build systems, protections and a framework to identify attacks and intrusions, share information with the private sector and across government and develop plans and capabilities to mitigate the damage, more must be done, and quickly."
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