The Department of Homeland Security on Thursday continued shifting its leadership in the wake of Kirstjen Nielsen’s forced resignation as secretary at the start of the week, with acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan announcing that Transportation Security Administration Chief David Pekoske is the new acting deputy at the department.
Pekoske will be succeeded, at least temporarily, at TSA by Patricia Cogswell, who has been in the acting deputy spot at the agency since last June.
Nielsen’s departure from DHS came shortly after President Trump withdrew his nomination of Ronald Vitiello to be director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), saying he wanted someone “tougher” for the job. In the past two years Vitiello had gone from chief of the Border Patrol to acting deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and then to deputy director of ICE to acting director. Vitiello resigned from DHS this week.
Pekoske previously served in the Coast Guard for 30 years, retiring in 2010 after finishing his service as vice commandant and before that commander of the Pacific Area. He became TSA administrator in August 2017 after serving as an executive at PAE for nearly seven years.
“Administrator Pekoske brings a wealth of experience and leadership to the department, previously serving as a senior leader within two DHS agencies; the United States Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration,” McAleenan said Thursday morning in a statement. “Additionally, he has tackled impressive challenges over the course of his career, ranging from acquisition and procurement reform as the Coast Guard’s Vice Commandant to securing America’s traveling public as TSA Administrator.”
McAleenan was commissioner of CBP until Trump tapped him as the acting secretary of DHS this week. McAleenan, who practiced law until joining CBP following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, at one time led CBP’s Office of Field Operations, which oversees the agency’s efforts to secure ports of entry and facilitate lawful trade and travel into and out of the U.S.
As the acting deputy secretary of DHS, Pekoske will be focused on the day-to-day management of the department. Since joining TSA, he has emphasized the testing and deployment of new technologies to improve security and the passenger experience at airport checkpoints.
In late March, TSA awarded a contract to Smiths Detection to bring the first 300 computed tomography-based scanners to airport checkpoints to screen carry-on bags and, in February, the agency awarded a contract to IDEMIA for a system that automatically verifies the authenticity of travel documents at airport checkpoints and provides the operator with information about each passenger’s risk status. Under Pekoske, the agency has continued to expand its live airport evaluations of automated screening lanes, which help speed the process of carry-on baggage inspections.
One industry official told Defense Daily that having two experienced officials in charge of DHS “is a good thing” given their “deep understanding” of CBP, TSA and the Coast Guard, which are thee three largest operating components at the department. The official said this could particularly benefit the relationship between TSA and CBP as they move to integrate more of their work.
CBP has been implementing an automated facial recognition check of travelers departing the U.S. on international flights and TSA is looking at using the same technology for identifying people as they enter airport screening checkpoints. Pekoske has said that he doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel and would rather piggyback on CBP’s investments in biometrics.
Cogswell, who was assistant director of ICE for four years, acting under secretary briefly of Intelligence and Analysis, worked screening coordination issues, and has worked policy issues at the department and White House National Security Council during part of the Obama administration, leading TSA may be her biggest challenge to date.
The industry official said that regardless of the leadership change at TSA the agency will continue to make progress on its technology roadmap.
Before McAleenan was named acting head of DHS, Claire Grady was the acting deputy. Grady, who was also forced to resign, statutorily was in line to be the acting secretary of DHS. She previously was the department’s undersecretary of management, overseeing procurement, finance, information technology, human resources, and the Office of Biometric Identity Management.
Grady came up through the acquisition ranks at the Defense Department and Coast Guard before becoming undersecretary of management in August 2017 and is considered a strong manager who is non-political. While she was serving as the acting deputy secretary of DHS, Chip Fulghum, her deputy at Management, was the acting Management chief. Fulghum recently announced he is leaving the department to work for a non-profit group in Texas.
Grady and Fulghum have “institutional knowledge of the operations and management of DHS” that is hard to replace, David Olive, a principal with the strategic advisory firm Catalyst Partners and who was involved in helping stand up DHS, told Defense Daily. With the large number of leadership positions at DHS that are filled with people in an acting capacity, Olive said the workaday personnel are left thinking “we’re on hold” and wondering who “has our backs.”
The leadership turnover at the department will have “downstream” impacts on hiring and retaining personnel, Olive said. He added that Trump’s singular focus on immigration and forcing out qualified people from leadership positions will also limit the pool of available, experienced, broad-based talent that the president can choose from to work at DHS.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is currently being led in an acting capacity as is the department’s Science and Technology Directorate.
Nielsen’s strength coming to DHS was around cyber security and emergency and disaster response but her focus under Trump was in line with his, border and immigration security. The department’s cyber security component is led by Christopher Krebs, who along with his team is being successful in their mission, another industry official told Defense Daily.
This official doesn’t expect much to change with the operations of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, at least not in the short-term, but in in the long run, asked, “does a new secretary who doesn’t care about cyber security treat it as a second tier priority?”