Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate panel today that the threat from violent Islamic extremists is openly discussed "every day" within the administration and considered "part and parcel" of both the Ft. Hood shooting and attempted Christmas Day bombing last year.
Napolitano defended her leadership of the department tasked with keeping Americans safe and asked lawmakers for "the right resources" to improve some of the challenges it faced in her first year.
The Department of Homeland Security is seeking a 2 percent increase to its $55.1 billion budget for 2011 to hire more security officers and acquire new technologies, among other initiatives.
Ahead of today's meeting, lawmakers expressed concern about the agency's size, heavy reliance on contract workers and ever-growing expenses.
The former Arizona governor, dubbed "Big Sis" by the Drudge Report and other news outlets, oversees more than 188,000 civilian employees, 200,000 contractors and an amalgam of 20 sub-agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration.
All told, the Department is the second largest combined work force behind the Department of Defense, and it's still growing amid concerns about its costly bloat.
Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Susan Collins, R-Maine, wrote to Napolitano Tuesday, calling the size of the agency's work force "unacceptable, untenable and unsustainable."
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler told ABC News Napolitano would reiterate a commitment to "decreasing the department's reliance on contractors and strengthening the federal work force at DHS."
But the enormity of the nation's youngest, Cabinet-level department is just one of many challenges that Napolitano, the third chief and first woman in the role, has had to face in the past year.
"Very few departments in the U.S. government have to worry about preparedness at the federal level, assist state and local governments and help the individual be prepared against threats," said Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, director of the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the bipartisan, nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Napolitano has a very good background to do this."
Napolitano Criticized for Rhetorical Miscues
Supporters have described her as an unrelenting strategist who's always trying to stay ahead of the game, an important trait for someone tasked with keeping up with evolving threats.
"She is always thinking about something you haven't thought about yet and is two or three plays ahead of you," former spokeswoman for the Arizona Gov. Jeanine L'ecuyer told ABC News. "She is thinking about the bigger picture."
Many of the threats Napolitano faced this past year, including two attempted terror attacks, have been new and evolving. When she took office there was not as great an urgency to police cyberspace and the borders, screen airline passengers' bags and their undergarments, prepare Americans for an H1N1 flu epidemic. and natural disasters spurred by climate change, among others.
But her tenure hasn't always been without its bumps in the road.
Napolitano raised eyebrows Sunday when she told a meeting of the National Governors' Association that homegrown extremists are now as pressing a worry as international terrorists.
She has weathered a storm of conservative critiques for several misstatements, including one reference to 9/11 hijackers traveling through Canada, which is incorrect, and another seeming to dismiss the seriousness of the failures leading to the Christmas Day bomb plot.
"Once the incident occurred, the system worked," Napolitano said on ABC News' "This Week" Dec. 27. The next day she reversed course, saying, "Our system did not work in this instance."
Napolitano has had to apologize to veterans for an agency report that warned some may be particularly prone to right-wing extremism and had to defend her approach to immigration enforcement, which places greater emphasis on the "demand side" of illegal workers.
"I really think her challenge is she's losing the PR race with the American public," said Jena McNeill, homeland security analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Every appointee is going to make some missteps in things they say. ... I think Janet Napolitano understands completely the threats she is having to work with … but it's really important the person at the helm of DHS is a good communicator."
Napolitano Colleague: She 'Works All the Time'
Still, in spite of the criticism, she has emerged from the first year largely intact, even earning the public support of both her Republican predecessors in the face of recent criticism of her handling of the Christmas Day bombing attempt.
"I heartily endorse her," former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told NBC after criticism of Napolitano following the Dec. 25 incident. "[She] has a good skill set."
Tom Ridge, the first Homeland Security chief, called criticism of Napolitano "misplaced."
Observers of Napolitano off the national stage describe a woman who hasn't let the criticism or pressure get to her. "She works; that's what she does. She works all the time," former spokeswoman L'ecuyer said. "The pressure doesn't bother her."
At stake for Napolitano is a career and reputation while faced with seemingly overwhelming odds: The systems Napolitano oversees to keep Americans safe on airplanes, along the borders and even online, need to get it right 100 percent of the time; would-be terrorists only need to be right once, analyst Nelson said.
"If you foil terror attacks, no one ever knows about it hardly," he said. "But if you have one, everybody knows about it" and it's your fault.
ABC News' Jason Ryan contributed to this report.