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Biden administration fires most Homeland Security Advisory Council members

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/27/2021 Maria Sacchetti, Nick Miroff

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas fired most members of the department’s independent advisory council on Friday, a purge that included several allies of former president Donald Trump and veteran officials who served under both parties.

Former Department of Homeland Security officials and advisory board members who worked under Democratic and Republican administrations said they could not remember so many members being dismissed at once, as the general practice of past administrations was to allow appointees to serve out their terms before replacing them.

The council is unpaid and includes leaders from state and local government, law enforcement, the private sector and academia who advise the agency on issues such as immigration, terrorism, crime and national disasters. Members serve one- to three-year terms and meet about four times a year.

The removal of more than 30 board members comes as the Biden administration tries to rid the department of Trump-era policies and practices, especially on immigration, and as it has struggled to shelter and care for an unprecedented number of migrant children and teenagers who have arrived at the southwest border without their parents.

DHS officials said Mayorkas would conduct an assessment of the council and reconstitute it with bipartisan members who better reflect the diversity of the United States and the people DHS serves. Mayorkas said he plans to retain Chairman William Bratton, the former police commissioner in New York and police chief in Los Angeles, and Vice Chair Karen P. Tandy, a retired administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. William H. Webster, former director of the FBI and the CIA, will remain the council’s chair emeritus.

[Trump put up walls to immigrants, with stinging rhetoric and barriers made of steel and regulation]

But everyone else is out.

“In the service of an orderly transition to a new model for the [Homeland Security Advisory Council] , I have ended the term of current HSAC members,” Mayorkas wrote in a letter Friday obtained by The Washington Post. “I will reconstitute the HSAC in the next few weeks, once the new model has been developed.”

Mayorkas declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

The Trump administration typically allowed the terms of board members to lapse before replacing them. In 2018, four members of the council — all Obama administration appointees — resigned in protest of the Trump administration separating migrant parents from their children at the border, calling the policy “morally repugnant.”

Juliette Kayyem — a former top DHS official during the Obama administration who was appointed to the council in May 2015 — said she was not aware of any precedent for a large-scale purge. Her appointment was not renewed in May 2017, she said, after she publicly criticized Trump’s so-called “Muslim Ban,” which initially barred travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States

“I had been very outspoken,” she said.

Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), ranking Republican of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Mayorkas’s “action sends the message that this Administration has no intention of upholding a bipartisan, unifying approach to securing our homeland.”

“The HSAC is not intended to be an echo chamber for what the current DHS Secretary wants to hear,” he said in a statement. “It’s an absolute shame that Secretary Mayorkas has removed these well-respected homeland security leaders who have dedicated their careers to strengthening our homeland security posture.”

Bratton, who remains the chairman of the council, said it is common for new leaders to appoint fresh advisers. He noted that earlier this year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin suspended the work of hundreds of members of advisory committees pending a review. Bratton said some members of the DHS council brought “phenomenal” expertise to the job and may be asked to return. Others will not.

He said Mayorkas’s goal is to have a bipartisan, diverse council with expertise in the major issues he confronts: domestic and international terrorism, cybersecurity and immigration, which Bratton said “is first and foremost right now.”

The current council also is made up primarily of White men, Bratton said, and new appointees likely will include more women, people of color and other underrepresented groups.

Bratton, who identifies as a political independent, said one of the council’s strengths has been its bipartisan nature. Members are some of the top experts in their fields, and together they travel abroad to conduct fact-finding missions, provide advice on the fly, and write and publish comprehensive reports that can influence policy and legislation. Party affiliations are not as important as expertise, he said.

“It’s a very collegial group,” he said. “People feel comfortable speaking their minds.”

[Migrant teens and children have challenged three administrations, but Biden faces rush with no precedent]

While some of those terminated were staunch Trump allies, others were Republicans with a history of working with Democrats on national security issues and could be asked to return. Among those removed was Robert Bonner, a former federal judge, U.S. attorney and Customs and Border Protection commissioner who gave Mayorkas his first job as a federal prosecutor.

Most members were nominated during the Trump administration, including a fire chief in northwest Arkansas, sheriffs who backed the former president’s hard-line immigration policies, and Thomas Homan, who was Trump’s acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017 and 2018 and was one of the top officials to sign off on the administration’s 2018 plan to separate migrant parents and children at the border. Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general who embraced and promoted Trump’s immigration policies, was named to the board just before Biden took office.

One of those ousted was Jay Ahern, who was an acting CBP commissioner during the Obama administration and was appointed to the council during the Trump administration. Ahern said he agreed that the council needs a fresh start.

“For the last four years and three months, politics has gotten in the way of just good judgment,” said Ahern, a principal at the Chertoff group that’s led by former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff. “And I think this is good judgment, and I think the secretary deserves to use his judgment.”

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