In choosing Judge Michael Chertoff as the new Homeland Security secretary, President Bush sends a signal to Americans that it's important to have someone who will stand "tough on terror." Toughness is Mr. Chertoff's wide reputation: As a US Attorney, he made a name for himself by successfully working to get the bosses of the five largest Mafia families in New York off the streets.
That kind of experience with organized crime should translate well into defending American citizens at home from a organized terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda.
Although he's been characterized as willing to push the limits on the law when it comes to fighting terrorists (he's known as one of the architects of the post-9/11 Patriot Act), it's worth noting Chertoff also was part of a chorus of private lawyers critical of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the president over the notion of indefinitely detaining enemy combatants at Guantánamo Bay.
That kind of honest criticism of bad ideas remains essential within Bush's Cabinet during this long war.
One immediate challenge for Chertoff: sorting out the shared burden of anti-terrorism security among federal, state, and local security agencies. He'll need to help Congress figure out how much federal money should be given to states and communities. The cry for federal dollars could be endless, and someone needs to define precisely how much local and state taxpayers must pay for their own security. Congress can not yield to every local police chief who wants 10 more chemical-warfare suits. Homeland security monies should not be seen as pork-barrel prizes.
Of course, Chertoff will have to further cement the security efforts credibly begun by his predecessor, Tom Ridge, on a wide number of fronts. Adequately securing the country's borders, including the ports, protecting key infrastructure such as chemical plants, beefing up cybersecurity, and curbing illegal immigration remain largely unfinished.
Like Mr. Ridge, Chertoff also will need to calm the American public in times of heightened terrorist activity, hopefully with a better alert system than the mostly confusing color-coded one now in place that often leaves citizens wondering just how to best respond. Asking people to parse the difference between orange and yellow alert days can even diminish the alert's seriousness.
But citizens can take some comfort in knowing that Chertoff is known for being both tough and aggressive, as well as an able administrator who's willing to listen carefully to all sides before taking decisive action.