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Homeland Security has a serious employee retention problem

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees are leaving at much higher rates than workers across the rest of the federal government, making it difficult for the agency to fulfill its mission of combating emerging threats ranging from terrorism to cyber attacks, a Washington Post report reveals.

Interviews with current and former officials reveal that a dysfunctional work environment and low morale are the factors leading employees out of the agency at nearly twice the rate of the overall federal government. They're often lured by much more lucrative jobs at private security companies that have sprungup around Washington since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The turnover spans the entire agency, which brought 22 different federal departments together when it was established in 2002 and employs more than 240,000 people.

The terrorism intelligence arm, the Washington Post notes, has been through six directors during President Obama's six years in office. Six different commissioners have helmed U.S. Customs and Border Protection, with four acting as caretakers because they were never confirmed by the Senate. After five years without a confirmed commissioner, Customs and Border Protection finally got a permanent head when R. Gil Kerlikowske was confirmed by the Senate in March.

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The vacancies in the immigration branches of DHS are particularly notable given their role in managing the flood of Central American children coming across the southern border.

Even junior level personnel are leaving at high rates. Kenneth Kasprisin, a former acting head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) left the agency in May, told the Washington Post that the departure of both junior and senior personnel has created security concerns. Security employees miss weapons or explosives the agency tries to sneak through U.S. airports to test their abilities at "frightening" rates.

"You cannot sustain a high level of security operations when you have that kind of turnover,'' he said.

Jeh Johnson vows to "vigorously pursue" DHS' missions

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement that the article "disregards the present" at the agency he oversees.

"The story's portrayal of the Department of Homeland Security is unrecognizable to anyone acquainted with the remarkable reconstruction of this agency over the last nine months," he said, offering a list of 11 recent senior-level appointees who have pledged to serve until at least the end of the administration. He also cited an "aggressive" campaign to improve morale.

"Over the last nine months, this Department has been quickly transformed into one with new, steady and able leadership," he said.

After Johnson was confirmed to his post earlier this year, he raised the alarm over "a leadership vacuum" and has taken steps to address the problem, looking for ways to reward employees and increase training.

Part of the dysfunctional environment is a result of DHS's sprawling mission, which has also led to a sprawling level of congressional oversight. The two former leaders of the 9/11 Commission warned on the 10th anniversary of their post-9/11 terror report that Congress has failed to implement a key recommendation of their report, which was to reform the "dysfunctional committee structure" that oversees the agency. The number of committees and subcommittees with an oversight role has only grown in the last 10 years, up from 88 to 92, they wrote.

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