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Border guard

Security | Janet Napolitano takes over a huge department that has even bigger demands on it

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

In a physics laboratory in Iran, Mohsen Fakrizadeh developed a top-secret project with a disturbing goal: UN investigators say the Iranian military officer spearheaded "Orchid Office"-a project that included efforts to develop a long-range missile to carry an atomic device.

UN officials aren't sure how far Iran has advanced in its nuclear capabilities, but the organization's nuclear watchdog said this much in February: The regime has enough enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb.

Iranian officials say their nuclear goals are aimed at generating electricity, a dubious claim from a country with a president that has called the United States "Satanic" and said that Israel is "about to die and will be soon erased from the geographical scene." When Iranians celebrated last month the 30th anniversary of the revolution that brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini, crowds filled the streets of Tehran, chanting: "Death to America."

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That's a chilling reality, but President Barack Obama says he wants to pursue talks with Iran, a controversial path that even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has doubted. But it's also a chilling reality for another official: Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona suddenly vaulted to the country's top post at the Department of Homeland Security.

Napolitano, 51, assumed the cabinet role in January and watched her responsibilities radically morph overnight: from securing hundreds of miles of southern border in a state of 6 million to overseeing thousands of miles of northern, southern, eastern, and western borders in a country of 300 million.

For Napolitano to think about securing borders, she must know about projects like Orchid Office: Security experts warn that rogue groups could smuggle nuclear material into the United States or launch missiles from waters off the nation's coastlines. Napolitano has plenty of other scenarios to consider too: dirty bombs, car bombs, hijackings, threats to infrastructure, and threats nearly impossible to predict, such as natural disasters that can cripple whole regions.

The Department of Homeland Security employs more than 200,000 people and encompasses 22 federal agencies, including FEMA, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration, the Secret Service, and the Coast Guard.

Napolitano's supporters say she's fit for the daunting job and praise the Democrat as an adept manager with a voracious appetite for details and an ability to please dueling political parties. During her tenure as Arizona governor, Napolitano butted heads with her Republican legislature but often reached compromises. Matt Salmon, a former state Republican chairman who narrowly lost to Napolitano in her first run for governor, told reporters: "She governs more to the middle."

As Napolitano organizes her sweeping department, large questions loom: Will governing to the middle work in a job with life-or-death implications? And with a Congress determined to influence the Homeland Security agenda, could Napolitano's toughest obstacles come from members of her own party?

Napolitano's moderate approach brought partisan reactions during her first appearance on Capitol Hill as secretary. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, chided Napolitano even before she spoke: The congressman noted that Napolitano's written remarks did not include the word terror. "This can't be the evil we don't speak about," said King. "Any testimony on homeland security should be centered around the threat of terrorism."

Napolitano addressed King's concerns during her testimony, saying the department's goal is to protect the nation from threats "both natural and manmade," adding: "And terrorism, I believe, Mr. King, falls into that category and is central to that category."

Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., chairman of the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment, defended Napolitano, saying: "I applaud the new tone of the department."

Reporters noticed Napolitano's new tone weeks before her congressional appearance, noting that she rarely mentioned terrorism specifically. When pressed, the secretary said she doesn't single out battling terrorism because "it's almost become part and parcel of what we do every day."

If Napolitano's tone is more moderate, that doesn't mean she can't be tough: As attorney general of Arizona, Napolitano strongly supported the death penalty, and she defended the state's death-penalty system before the Supreme Court.

Her toughness on immigration, a crucial security issue, is more mixed: Napolitano became the first governor to send National Guard troops to protect state borders, and she famously walked part of the border with President George W. Bush. She favored Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's proposal to provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants without blanket amnesty. But she also opposed four ballot initiatives toughening laws against illegal immigration that Arizona voters approved by 70 percent or more, and she vetoed seven state bills aimed at stemming illegal immigration.

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