Homeland Security ‘Nerve Center’ Chief Seeks Broad Policy Sway

  • Border, cyber protections loom as top challenges for agency
  • Biden appointee sees himself as ‘neutral arbiter’ in role

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A low-profile office in the Department of Homeland Security can steer the Biden administration’s major decisions on immigration, cybersecurity, and other vexing issues. Much will hinge on how its new leader exerts his influence.

Robert Silvers has been on the job just four months as DHS’s under secretary for strategy, policy, and plans, a role Congress elevated in 2016 to strengthen headquarters’ coordination. It’s a potentially significant but untested title — going largely unfilled during the Trump administration.

Silvers aims to untangle some of DHS’s most complicated problems, including combating ransomware and securing the southern border as migrants have crossed into the U.S. in record numbers.

“I see our office as the nerve center of this department,” he said in an interview. “We’re the office that says, ‘This is what we want to do, and this is how we do it.’”

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jessica J. Mazzamuto
U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Forrest C. Poole shakes hands with Robert Silvers, under secretary for the DHS Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans, at the Marines’ base in Quantico, Va., on Dec. 3, 2021.

Former officials and advocates say they hope Silvers can boost the office’s clout and use it to improve decision-making in the disjointed Cabinet agency, the third largest.

“The policy office has a real opportunity to be that connective tissue for the department,” said Carrie Cordero, a senior fellow at the research group Center for a New American Security.

With a slim headquarters team, DHS has long struggled to unite its many branches, ranging from the Coast Guard to the Secret Service and three immigration agencies. At least a dozen scholars, analysts, and former officials, including Cordero, have recommended mobilizing the policy shop to improve overall management and accountability.

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Big Picture

Policy offices play influential coordinating roles in other big departments, including State and Defense. The need for a similarly powerful central coordinator at DHS, with almost a quarter-million emplyees, is acute.

Each DHS agency focuses on a unique mission, not the bigger picture of homeland security, former DHS counterterrorism official Tom Warrick said.

“When it comes to figuring out what the American people need DHS to do, the perspective that the office of policy has is the one that is most focused on helping the American people be more secure,” said Warrick, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan foreign affairs group.

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The policy office can also save everyone time. “Components can benefit from the wisdom and the experience of other components, the size and scale of deployments, and not have to continually reinvent DHS policy again and again,” said Andrew Howell, a partner at the lobbying firm Monument Advocacy.

Department leaders quickly realized the need for a policy shop after the creation of DHS following the Sept. 11 attacks and added it during a reorganization in 2005. Its launch came just in time to handle a growing challenge of migrant border crossings the following year, said Stewart Baker, a former National Security Agency lawyer who served as policy office’s first leader under then-Secretary Michael Chertoff.

“We had to get everybody together to find a way to make sure that the capacity had been expanded so that it could handle the crisis,” Baker, now at Steptoe & Johnson LLP, said, describing how he assembled a task force of different agencies to speed up deportations and asylum processing.

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Inconsistent Clout

That same coordination is needed on cybersecurity, terrorism, and other challenges that affect multiple corners of the department. Silvers is best known for his work on cyber issues in private law practice and as an assistant secretary at DHS during the Obama administration. But he also previously served as a senior immigration official and as deputy chief of staff for the department.

“I see myself as a neutral arbiter,” he told Bloomberg Government. “There sometimes are different voices in the department. It’s always in good faith. It’s just different people come in with different views on what the best way is forward on hard issues.”

Silvers faces obstacles in his efforts to get headstrong DHS agencies on the same page, former officials say.

In the official chain of command, the head of the policy office is on par with several fellow headquarters officials, plus the leaders of the Transportation Security Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other agencies the policy office is supposed to coordinate.

That means the office’s power is heavily dependent on the personality of its leader and his or her relationship with the secretary. Chertoff viewed the office as No. 3 in DHS—below him and his deputy—and made that status clear throughout the department, Baker said. That power waned in subsequent years depending on who was in charge.

“This is not a good thing,” said consultant Paul Rosenzweig, a senior policy official during the Bush years. “Government should not be based on the strength of the personalities of the people involved.”

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‘It’s Struggling’

Congress signaled the need for a strong policy office in 2016 when it upgraded its leadership role from assistant secretary to under secretary, a loftier title that demands more respect in federal government circles.

“You have this massive, unwieldy bureaucracy of 240,000 people. You need some pretty high-level managers to be able to even begin to cope with it,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who sponsored the legislation, said in a recent hallway interview.

Yet lawmakers didn’t boost the office’s rank within the department or answer calls to surge its budget. The impact of the title change alone remains largely unknown. Though the Senate confirmed President Donald Trump’s appointee Chad Wolf as the policy office’s first under secretary in 2019, he took on the larger role of acting secretary within hours of his confirmation.

Warrick, the former counterterrorism official, is optimistic Silvers’s broad professional background and close relationship with Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas position him well to make a difference in the job.

“This should lead overall to Policy being a strong voice on a wide range of issues and should strengthen the secretary’s hand in dealing with the many challenges DHS faces,” he said.

Still, Wolf, who ran the policy shop temporarily before his confirmation, maintained that anyone in charge of the office is at a disadvantage because of how it’s structured.

“It’s one thing to create the position of an under secretary,” he said. “It’s another thing to properly resource, give it the authorities, and make it an attractive place to retain talent. And on all of those accounts, it’s struggling.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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