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Rough first 100 days for Napolitano

Director of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, center, in the White House Press Briefing Room during a news conference to discuss reported Swine Flu outbreaks, Sunday, April 26, 2009, in Washington. Standing behind her are White Press Secretary Richard Gibbs, right, and Dr. Richard Besser, left, Acting Director Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Director of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, center, in the White House Press Briefing Room during a news conference to discuss reported Swine Flu outbreaks, Sunday, April 26, 2009, in Washington.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Former Gov. Janet Napolitano had to deal with a Republican-controlled state Legislature in Arizona, but the new secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security now faces a barrage of criticism from congressional Republicans who see her as the easiest target in the Obama administration.

Republicans turned their attention to Napolitano after DHS released a report outlining threats from domestic terrorist organizations that was criticized by members of both parties who interpreted it as singling out veterans as potential criminals.

The report was the most visible development from the department during Napolitano’s first 100 days in the Obama administration, even though DHS spokespeople point to Napolitano’s other activities so far – a trip to towns in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to witness border operations; the consolidation of Gulf Coast recovery efforts in order to boost efficiency and lower costs; and an efficiency review of the unwieldy department, to name a few.

The report, issued to local law enforcement officials across the country, warned of the potential for homegrown terrorist organizations to sprout in response to the slumping economy, in addition to threats from organizations motivated by a specific issue, like opposition to abortion or immigration.

The report also noted a rise in gun sales, a phenomenon attributed to fears that Democratic control of Washington could lead to new gun-control measures.

White supremacist organizations have reportedly increased membership after the nation’s first African American president took office.

Napolitano took heat for suggesting that some veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, especially those who are having trouble reintegrating into society, could be particularly vulnerable to recruitment.

“To characterize men and women returning home after defending our country as potential terrorists is offensive and unacceptable,” House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement. “The Department of Homeland Security owes our veterans an apology.”

In response, Napolitano met with David Rehbein, the commander of the American Legion, to offer her apologies.

The 45-minute meeting on April 24 came across as “very sincere,” Rehbein told Fox News last week.

Republicans also howled that the department is monitoring political views.

Boehner also said Napolitano “owes the American people an explanation for why she has abandoned using the term ‘terrorist’ to describe those, such as al Qaeda, who are plotting overseas to kill innocent Americans, while her own department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.”

Napolitano disputed the notion that political views are being monitored. “We monitor the risks of violent extremism taking root here in the United States,” Napolitano said in a statement last week. “We don’t have the luxury of focusing our efforts on one group; we must protect the country from terrorism whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence.”

Republican members of Congress have taken to calling for Napolitano’s head, despite her apologies, clarifications and a confession that the report did not meet department standards and shouldn’t have been released.

Reps. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., along with John Carter, R-Texas, the No. 4 Republican in the House, have called for Napolitano’s resignation.

The removal effort came quickly for someone approved by unanimous consent; Napolitano was confirmed to her post just hours after Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20, along with a host of other non-controversial nominees.

Other Cabinet secretaries have come under the same withering glare. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been the subject of calls for his resignation following early subpar performances and revelations that his department helped craft a provision that allowed AIG executives to keep massive bonuses even as the company accepted federal bailout money.

Attorney General Eric Holder also attracted criticism when he suggested the administration could revive certain gun laws, and again for his role in the release of memos that detailed the use of torture by American officials during interrogations of suspected terrorists.

The heat has come off Geithner and Holder, and it now appears Napolitano might have a way to relieve some of the pressure as well.

She has a chance to redeem herself in the public eye this week as the leader of intergovernmental efforts to stem the spread of the H1N1 swine flu. As the Obama administration’s public face for dealing with the outbreak, Napolitano is the recipient of a rare second shot at a first impression.

A presidential directive issued shortly after the creation of the Homeland Security Department puts the secretary in control of response to national incidents such as pandemics.

Napolitano has been a prominent fixture on cable talk shows and on nightly news programs since she spoke at an April 26 press conference along with the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House deputy national security adviser.

Napolitano has also given daily press briefings on the outbreak, events that have become cable news mainstays, and her testimony before House and Senate committees have been well-received. On April 28, Napolitano gave an update to senators in both parties at their weekly policy luncheons.

As she leads government response to the swine flu threat, calls for apologies or resignations have died down. But in the rough and tumble Washington scene, far from her Governor’s Office in Phoenix, Napolitano is still finding her way through what can prove a treacherous minefield.

-Reid Wilson is a staff writer for The Hill in Washington D.C. who also contributes to the Arizona Capitol Times

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