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Homeland Security jobs left vacant

Spencer S. Hsu Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has failed to fill roughly a quarter of the top leadership posts at the Department of Homeland Security, creating a “gaping hole” in the nation’s preparedness for a terrorist attack or other threat, according to a congressional report to be released today.

As of May 1, Homeland Security had 138 vacancies among its top 575 positions, with the greatest voids reported in its policy, legal and intelligence sections, as well as immigration agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard. Vacant slots include presidential, senior executive and other high-level appointments, according to the report by the House Homeland Security Committee.

A DHS spokesman challenged the report’s tally, saying that it was skewed by a sudden expansion this spring in the number of top management jobs. Before then, only 12 percent of positions were unfilled in a department that has always been thinly staffed at headquarters, spokesman Russ Knocke said.

The findings have stoked fresh concern among some in Congress about the four-year-old department’s progress in overcoming management problems, dating to its troubled 2003 creation from 22 components.

DHS was reorganized in 2005 by its current secretary, Michael Chertoff, then suffered a breakdown at multiple levels in responding to Hurricane Katrina that August, which prompted a congressional overhaul.

“One of the continuing problems appears to be the over politicization of the top rank of Department management,” concludes the report by the committee, chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. “This could lead to heightened vulnerability to terrorist attack.”

In an interview, Thompson said the vacancies have weakened morale and reflect an over-reliance on contractors. Thompson also called the report a warning “that we can expect more vacancies to occur than what we have been accustomed to” at the close of the administration, when many top personnel will leave their posts.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, agreed that the inability to fill jobs is creating problems within DHS offices. While walking his district Sunday, Davis said, he met constituents employed at an immigration agency who described lowered morale because of the vacancies.

Of the 138 vacant positions, DHS provided no explanation for 70, according to the House report. Seven others had tentative or pending appointees, and 60 were under recruitment.

The department has 130 vacancies at senior levels, Knocke said, with 92 of them now in the process of recruitment.

Homeland Security employees reported the lowest job satisfaction of 36 federal agencies in a January survey by OPM. The average tenure of the Secret Service director has dropped from 10 years during the last century to less than three years since 1992, and the agency has had three directors since it was moved into DHS.

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