Top White House aide Nielsen confirmed as homeland security secretary

President Trump congratulating Kirstjen Nielsen, the newly confirmed Homeland Security secretary, during a White House ceremony in October to announce her nomination.
President Trump congratulating Kirstjen Nielsen, the newly confirmed Homeland Security secretary, during a White House ceremony in October to announce her nomination. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The US Senate voted on Tuesday (Dec 6) to confirm Ms Kirstjen Nielsen as the secretary of homeland security, elevating a top White House aide and former agency official to oversee the department central to President Donald Trump's plan to crack down on illegal immigration and beef up border security.

The vote was 62-37.

Ms Nielsen will replace General John F. Kelly, who left in July to become the White House chief of staff. Ms Nielsen served as Kelly's chief of staff at the Homeland Security Department, and he brought her along to the White House to be his deputy.

Ms Elaine C. Duke, a deputy Homeland Security secretary, has served as the acting secretary in the interim. Ms Duke has said she would remain at the department in the No. 2 position, tamping down speculation that she might resign after Ms Nielsen was installed.

Ms Nielsen has faced questions about her lack of experience running a large organisation - Homeland Security is the third-largest department in the federal government - but has defended herself as up to the task.

A former Transportation Security Administration official, she will be the first former employee to lead the department.

"Many of the leadership skills that have brought me to this point are scalable," she said at her confirmation hearing last month.

As homeland security secretary, Ms Nielsen will be responsible for carrying out the Trump administration's efforts to reduce immigration. She will also be responsible for aviation security, domestic counter-terrorism and preparations for natural and man-made disasters.

Additionally, she will oversee the hiring of 5,000 new Border Patrol agents and 10,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Mr Trump, in a January executive order, called for an increase in the number of immigration officers to secure the nation's borders and to get tough on illegal immigration. The House has approved funding for an increase in funding for new Border Patrol agents, but the Senate has not acted on the legislation.

Ms Nielsen will face a number of challenges. Even as the department tries to hire new Border Patrol agents, it is losing them at a faster rate.

The agency has had trouble retaining agents who face polygraph requirements, working in remote locations and receiving lower annual pay compared with other law enforcement jobs.

Annual turnover rates average 6 per cent for the Border Patrol. And reports by the Homeland Security inspector general released in the past few months have questioned a number of programmes at the agency.

One report questioned the contributions of the federal air marshal programme, which places armed marshals on commercial flights to protect passengers and crews against a terrorist attack. The report said funding for the programme, which costs about US$10 billion (S$13.47 million) a year, could be put to better use.

Another report found that TSA screeners at the nation's airports continue to struggle to identify weapons and bombs at security checkpoints. Undercover agents for the inspector general managed to slip fake weapons past screeners nearly half the time, according to a person with knowledge of the report, which remains classified.

Ms Nielsen worked at the TSA after it was created as a response to the terror attacks of Sept 11, 2001.

She left the government in 2007, serving as a private sector consultant who helped government entities and private companies devise plans to guard against cyber attacks.

Ms Nielsen also served on President George W. Bush's homeland security council, devising a national response plan for domestic events and helping to compile a report on lessons from the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

A bipartisan group of former homeland security officials endorsed her nomination, including two former secretaries of the department, Mr Tom Ridge and Mr Michael Chertoff, both Republicans who served under Mr Bush.

"Ms Nielsen has been engaged in counter-terrorism, all-hazard risk mitigation, critical infrastructure protection and response policy from the earliest days of what we now know as homeland security," they jointly wrote in a letter to the Senate Homeland Security Committee last month.