Janet Napolitano Exclusive: Behind-the-Scenes with the Homeland Security Secretary

An exclusive look at a day in the life of Secretary Napolitano.

April 25, 2010, 1:31 PM

WASHINGTON, April 26, 2010— -- Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in an exclusive interview she agreed with President Obama's assessment that Arizona's recent rigid immigration law is "misguided" and said that the time for immigration reform -- including fines and a form of biometric registration for illegal aliens as well as mandatory English -- has come.

"This affects everybody, and I actually view it now as a security issue," Napolitano told ABC News Friday during an exclusive look into a day in the life of the Homeland Security secretary. "We need to know who's in the country. And we need to know, for those who are in the country illegally, there needs to be a period under which they are given the opportunity to register so we get their biometrics, we get their criminal history and we know who they are. They pay a fine. They learn English. They get right with the law."

Napolitano said it was a lack of federal reform that provoked Arizona's controversial law which allows Arizona police to question and arrest people with nothing more than "reasonable suspicion" about their immigration status.

"That one is a misguided law. It's not a good law enforcement law. It's not a good law in any number of reasons. But beyond that, what it illustrates is that other states now will feel compelled to do things. And you will have this patchwork of laws where we need a federal immigration system that meets our security needs, that recognizes where we need to go in this 21st century and gives us a better framework on which to stand," she said.

Napolitano made the comments, fittingly enough, on the way to a naturalization ceremony. She's only hours into a day that started with a crisis on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and won't end until the late hours of the night.

The job of secretary of the Department of Homeland Security is one of the most pressure-packed jobs in Washington. Last week, ABC News got a rare, exclusive look inside Janet Napolitano's world.

At 7:30 a.m. accompanied by the U.S. Secret Service, Napolitano arrives at headquarters before most of Washington is at work.

A short time later, the first order of business is a top secret intelligence briefing, which includes all the ways terrorists are plotting to kill Americans.

The job is about preventing or responding to disasters -- everything from the Swine Flu pandemic to Mother Nature. And today there is already an ongoing crisis to deal with.

At 8:30 a.m., huge pillars of smoke continue flowing out of the Gulf of Mexico, where a catastrophic explosion sank a massive oil rig. At the time, all anyone knew is that workers are likely dead and there is the potential for environmental disaster.

The secretary begins a secure conference call with the Coast Guard and a host of other agencies.

"Good morning Madam Secretary, this is Admiral Landry in New Orleans," begins Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, commander of the Coast Guard's Eighth District.

An official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration joins the call.

"We're going to have a strong cold front sweep through the Gulf Coast states today through Saturday," the NOAA official says. "This cold front is going to produce very severe weather ... . We could have a big tornado outbreak today and tomorrow."

"And where would this outbreak occur in all likelihood?" Napolitano asks.

"From Arkansas down to Central Louisiana and the Eastern portions of Texas," the official responds.

"Alright, and I'm assuming FEMA's alert to this and is leaning forward?"

It's a situation she will deal with all day, but right now -- she's due at the White House for a naturalization ceremony. So it's down the stairs, and into a car for Napolitano, aides and her security detail.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano Says Immigration Laws Need to Be Reformed

"We're going to make some new citizens today," the secretary says on the way to the White House. "One of the best parts of this job is swearing in ceremonies. Last Friday I was in Boston for a bunch of meetings and we swore in almost 400 new citizens from 65 different countries, it was amazing -- in Faneuil Hall, right in the historic part of Boston."

"We do something called the American by Choice Award, which is somebody who has, you know chosen to become a U.S. citizen. And the American by choice last week was a elderly gentleman who had been a Holocaust survivor, and he had this little flag, this big," she gestures with her hands, "that he always carries around and was given to him by a U.S. army tank commander when they liberated Dachau. And he said it was the first sign in five years of hope and generosity in the world and that's why he came to the United States. Anyways -- an amazing story."

"For people to become U.S. citizens is a huge deal. We take it for granted. We've been citizens our whole lives. But those who become citizens and now get to enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship, it's just huge. So it's a good thing and when you deal with all the other things you deal with in this position -- that's one of the more enjoyable moments," she says.

But, Napolitano says, the overall immigration laws need to be reformed.

"I can tell you this as the former U.S. attorney of Arizona and the former attorney general of Arizona, the former governor of Arizona, and as someone who actually grew up in another border state which is New Mexico, that it is time for reform. The system is under too much pressure. And the system needs to be updated reform to reflect current realities," she says.

Another issue that Napolitano knows well from her time in Arizona and New Mexico is the seemingly endless violence south of the border.

"I think that this is a key issue for the United States and that we should do all we can to assist President Calderon in his effort to break up the cartels that inhabit Mexico," she said. "Those cartels have fingers that reach well into the United States, into hundreds of our communities, distributing drugs, and, of course, as your question says, they're fueled by bulk cash and arms coming south of the border."

Napolitano said that bringing in the National Guard to help curb violence on the border is "under consideration" in the White House and said the violence could touch the U.S.

"Oh, there's always a prospect, so we're watching it very carefully," she said. "And there are occasional horrendous crimes... But is it a wave of spillover violence? We have not yet seen that. We never want to see that. And so that's why moving the kinds of resources we moved down to the border makes sense."

At the White House, President Obama opens the door for Napolitano, and the two walk out to music.

Napolitano says she first met President Obama when she was chair of the National Governor's Association. A picture of the two hangs prominently in her office.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States accompanied by Secretary Janet Napolitano," an announcer's voice booms.

Napolitano raises her right hand, and swears in new U.S. citizens, offering her congratulations.

"It's really one of the most if not the most enjoyable parts of my business which is the nationalization of new citizens," she tells ABC News afterwards. "These young men and women are already in the military, they're already serving their country so, we have naturalized since 2001 over 58,000 military members. It's one of our big programs and we're actually looking to expand it."

On the way to more briefings, there is a chance to chat about the secretary's future. She's on a shortlist for an upcoming Supreme Court vacancy -- a subject she defers addressing.

"I'm flattered to have it asked. We'll just leave it at that," she says, when asked whether she would accept a nomination from the president.

The day starts to become a blur. Next stop -- a meeting with the president of Air Canada to discuss commerce and airline security. Then it's time to record a public service announcement.

"Right now we're helping prepare a video that will be used for law enforcement to help detect the signs of trafficking which is often a crime in plain sight but you don't see it unless you know the signs. We do these on a routine and it's part of our responsibility," she says.

Outreach is part of the job -- and Napolitano has tried some surprising venues, such as Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report", and ABC's "The View".

"The point is to reach different audiences," Napolitano explains. "We can't do everything inside Washington, D.C. nor should we."

"The shows are kind of fun to go on anyways. But the goal is to expand the outreach of homeland security," she says.

Then it's back to the White House for another emergency meeting on the oil rig disaster.

Next up? The year's first briefing on hurricane preparedness.

Then on to a Transportation Security Administration rally. TSA employees say they have been under incredible pressure since the Christmas Day attempted bombing.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano Says Being Second-Guessed Is Part of the Job

For her, preventing terror is the number one mission. Napolitano sums up the job in her typical blunt style.

"Our job is to do everything we can to minimize the fact that one of these threats will actually materialize into harm to the United States," Napolitano says. "It's regrettable and in some ways unfathomable, but it's real and we've got to deal with the reality of it."

She warns al Qaeda is trying desperately to score a direct hit.

"They remain an ever-present threat," she says. "One of the things we've seen over the last year is the phenomenon of U.S. citizens traveling to the [federally administered tribal areas], traveling to Yemen, to learn the tactics used by al Qaeda and then coming back," Napolitano says.

The reality of the threat was underscored last Christmas Day, when a 23-year-old al-Qaeda-trained Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253, and attempted to ignite a bomb sewn into his underpants. He was thwarted by fellow passengers.

After the incident, Napolitano was criticized for initially saying "the system worked."

A day later, she was much clearer in her wording.

"We want to go backward now and review our list processes," she said the next day. "They clearly need to be adjusted. We need to look at this individual specifically, and the screening technology that was deployed."

Napolitano says when she first made that initial remark, she was referring to security precautions put in place after the bomber was discovered.

"A lesson learned was in this job, one must always be clear. And, you know, that's just the way it is. But you also can't, you know, sit and cry about it," she says. "It was definitely a lesson learned, but it also was a catalyst for one of the major initiatives now of this department ... an entire global initiative to increase aviation security."

The incident was a close call in a job with enormous responsibility.

"It has many aspects to it and you just got to deal with it as a person," she says. "You've got to then organize and lead and make sure that everybody in this huge vast department -- which is the third largest department of the United States and it covers almost everything as you're seeing -- is leaning forward, taking every action that they can and really thinking thoughtfully about what needs to be done."

"You got to be willing to make decisions quickly that you know will be second-guessed by people who have a lot of time," she adds.

Back at headquarters there are still more briefings, this time at the super secure National Operations Center -- a communications hub where the government tracks crises, usually more than one at a time.

There, Don Treanor, acting head of National Operations Center briefs Napolitano.

"First, I want to give you an update on the volcanic ash," he says, showing her the latest satellite picture of the Icelandic volcano that grounded all flights to and from the United Kingdom and surrounding areas.

But the oil spill continues to dominate, and the Department is trying to use all the technology it has to monitor the situation.

"As you can see we have the live, remote feed from the [remote operated vehicle] -- and there is nothing coming out of wellhead. From remote the operated vehicle -- about 30 feet from the bottom," he says.

"That's from the ROV?" she inquires.

"Yes ma'am."

"How deep is this here?"

"This is about 4,500 feet below the surface."

"That is as up close and personal as you can get," Napolitano says, watching the feed.

Then it's off for more briefings, and to prepare for a congressional hearing -- and the next crisis.

ABC News' Kristina Wong and Lee Ferran contributed to this story.

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