RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today is Janet Napolitano's last day as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Napolitano is leaving Washington D.C., heading for California, to become at the end of this month, president of the University of California System. NPR's Brian Naylor sat down with Napolitano yesterday for a look back at her tenure as head of one of the government's largest and most complex departments.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Since her confirmation at the start of President Obama's first term, Janet Napolitano has had what many would say is one of the hardest and perhaps most thankless jobs in Washington. It involved running a department comprised of 22 different agencies, many with little in common, and overseeing a bureaucracy of some 240,000 employees. Still, Napolitano says it hasn't been all bad.
JANET NAPOLITANO: It's a fascinating, challenging job that is difficult and rewarding. It is 24/7.
NAYLOR: Under her tenure, one of Homeland Security's key departments, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, got high marks for its response to Hurricane Sandy. And she is proud of another instance where DHS planning and money helped local responders prepare for the worst.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: At least two explosions rocked the finish of the Boston Marathon today. Boston police report two people killed.
NAPOLITANO: The fact that Boston happened was a terrible despicable act, but immediately afterwards, you had, you know, it was - you got control over the crime scene. The medical personnel were organized. That was a product of investment by the department and their training and their equipment and the like. And I don't think it was a capability we would have necessarily have had four and a half years ago.
NAYLOR: Other parts of Homeland Security's domain, however, remain problematic. Under Napolitano, the TSA has made it easier for some, the young and old and very frequent fliers, to pass through airport security with minimal disruption. Still, complaints about inappropriate pat downs and rude security personnel persist.
And there's the southern border. Some critics say the department has deported too many undocumented people, while others charge the border, despite fences, aircraft and more agents, remains too porous. Napolitano says the border is better staffed and equipped than ever.
NAPOLITANO: What bothers me is hearing people continuing to say the border is out of control. What I think we really need to do, as a country, is step back and say, all right, what would actually best improve the border even beyond what it is now? And that is immigration reform.
NAYLOR: Homeland Security, like every other cabinet department, has had to face budget cuts. And there are a number of vacancies at the department's top ranks. Frank Ciluffo is a former Bush administration official who now heads George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute. Ciluffo says, by and large, Napolitano did an admirable job. But he adds it's not going to be any easier for her successor.
FRANK CILUFFO: They're going to be required to do more with less given budget cuts, given sequestration. This will be relatively new for the Department of Homeland Security and I think its mission area is actually growing to some extent in terms of scope, notably with respect to cyber.
NAYLOR: There are just a few mementos yet to be packed in Napolitano's modest - for a cabinet secretary's - office: some posters from the Santa Fe Opera, a saddle given to her when she was Arizona governor. As she prepares to move to academia, Napolitano says she's been paying attention to President Obama's recent speeches on college costs and student debt.
NAPOLITANO: We're a public university system. I think it carries the responsibility to be accessible, but also the attraction of helping educate a whole next generation is very attractive.
NAYLOR: Napolitano says she plans to spend her first weeks on the job at the University of California asking questions and listening. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.