In Chertoff, safe choice
WASHINGTON — Of all the points on Michael Chertoff's résumé, the most important for now may be that he appears confirmable. At George W. Bush's announcement Tuesday nominating Judge Chertoff to become the next secretary of Homeland Security, the president pointedly noted that Chertoff has already been confirmed by the Senate three times for previous posts.
In contrast with the colorful Bernard Kerik - Bush's first choice for Homeland Security, who withdrew from consideration after multiple ethical issues came to light - Chertoff brings to the table long experience in Washington and in legal matters. Now a federal appeals judge in New Jersey, Chertoff is a former federal prosecutor who led the Department of Justice's criminal division from 2001 to 2003. After the 9/11 attacks, he played a key role in forming US legal strategy.
Chertoff's selection came as a surprise; many in Washington and in the homeland security field see the management of the big new bureaucracy as a central challenge, and Chertoff is not seen foremost as a manager. The department, formed after 9/11, integrates the operations of 22 preexisting agencies, and has been criticized for moving slowly on enhancing protection of borders and ports and generally integrating all its disparate parts.
"The next director has to grow the agency beyond the teething stage," says Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center and former deputy director of the National Intelligence Council.
To the American public, perhaps the most visible aspect of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is its color-coded terror alert system - a post-9/11 creation designed to help first responders, and Americans in general, maintain the appropriate level of vigilance at a time of continuing terrorist threat. But the system was quickly lampooned, and over time some have had a sense that the alert system risked being dismissed as the government crying wolf. Departing DHS secretary Tom Ridge himself has indicated that the system needs to be rethought.
Chertoff brings to the job credentials as a law-and-order conservative, having aggressively supported the birth of the Patriot Act, which civil libertarians have been fighting since its inception. But, say people who have worked with Chertoff from a different political perspective, he's capable of working across the aisle.
"He's someone you can talk to who hears different viewpoints," says Juliette Kayyem, a homeland security expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School who served on a terrorism task force with Chertoff. "He's intense, but well-liked across the board."
One senator who may be unhappy with Chertoff's nomination is Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York. From 1994 to 1996, Chertoff was a special counsel for the Senate's Whitewater Committee, which investigated the Clintons' financial dealings. As a senator, Mrs. Clinton voted against his nomination to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, calls him "a good guy, a very smart guy" and "a strong US attorney." During his time on Capitol Hill, Mr. Ornstein says, Chertoff was "fairly tough, but not outrageously unfair during some of the Clinton period."
Still, Ornstein calls the nomination "kind of puzzling," because "among the skill sets that you would think would be a very high priority ... is large amounts of experience managing huge and unwieldy organizations."
Ornstein also doesn't see Chertoff as rating high on public relations. But, he adds, "frankly, I think having a great public spokesman in this job is not necessarily a good thing. I think Tom Ridge got caught up a little too much in being the public face of Homeland Security.... That can detract from what is the essence of this job, which is to manage and run a huge, difficult enterprise."
Ridge was the governor of Pennsylvania when Bush tapped him to be his White House homeland security adviser, and brought his political sensibilities to the job. Mr. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, also would have brought a flair for public appearance. So in selecting Chertoff, Bush appears to have turned in a more staid direction.
Observers have also noted that, as Bush weighs another key appointment - the newly created position of National Director of Intelligence - that may be an area where Bush seeks to put forward a face of reassurance to the public.
With the DHS job, "it sounds like they're looking for someone who's a careful, competent professional who's worked in the executive branch and also been elevated to the judiciary - which shows a kind of gravity that is appropriate here," says James Pfiffner, a political scientist at George Mason University.