DHS loses another key executive

The Homeland Security Department yesterday announced that undersecretary for border and transportation security Asa Hutchinson would leave his post on March 1. Hutchinson's departure announcement swells the ranks of senior DHS officials who are heading for the exit, which number more than a dozen.

Secretary Tom Ridge said in a statement that Hutchinson "championed our biometric technology entry/exit system with the implementation of US-VISIT, and has overseen increased detection, detention and removal of illegal immigrants throughout the country. His leadership efforts to provide the latest technology and tools to the 110,000 employees of the Border and Transportation Security Directorate, the largest in the department, have enabled us to keep our country safe and secure. Additionally, he strengthened relationships with foreign governments, which has enhanced our partnerships in the fight against terrorism."

Hutchinson himself announced his plans beforehand to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper. He reportedly plans to run for Arkansas governor.

Hutchinson's resignation follows the White House's nomination of appeals court judge and Justice Department veteran Michael Chertoff to succeed Ridge.

Many observers of the department had speculated that Hutchinson sought the secretary job, though he took an approach of studied silence on the issue.

Hutchinson's tenure at the Border and Transportation Security Directorate was marked by wholesale upheaval in its component agencies' IT operations. The directorate's agencies struggled to coordinate their systems for the role of counterterrorism, a job that did not come naturally to organizations such as the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 dismembered INS and distributed its functions across three of the directorate's agencies: Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The homeland security law comprised a shotgun marriage between the INS and the Customs Service, partly merging two organizations with historically different missions and cadres of legacy employees who in many cases viewed one another with suspicion.

INS' computer systems have been the subject of criticism from Congress for years. Merging Customs and the INS rammed the immigration agency's computer projects together with the Automated Commercial Environment, a massive project for coordinating trade data that has problems of its own.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator System served as a lightning rod for public criticism of the directorate over privacy issues and other concerns. But U.S. Visit program managers succeeded in fielding the early stages of the virtual border system on time.

The directorate's vast size required additional ambitious systems projects within the Transportation Security Administration, the Border Patrol and other agencies.

One of the most vexing problems the directorate's IT leaders faced was the question of how to allocate interagency payments for IT services. ICE in particular came up short because it contributed many more systems resources than it received. Agency officials said late last year that they had resolved their differences over how to pay ICE, but when the dispute festered in fiscal 2004 the directorate's financial problems attracted criticism from Congress.

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