Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is upbeat about the prospects for immigration legislation, worried by a growing complacency about terrorist threats, bemused by Washington's political culture, and dismissive of critics who say his department is unmanageable.
Mr. Chertoff was the guest at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast on Wednesday. The wiry former federal judge and US attorney is playing a key role in the Bush administration's negotiations with Congress on immigration-reform legislation along with Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.
The back and forth between the two administration negotiators was on display Wednesday. After being whisked into the Sofitel Hotel by his Secret Service detail, Chertoff perched on a couch in the lobby and chatted with Secretary Gutierrez on a BlackBerry before meeting with reporters.
"I have the perhaps enviable, perhaps unenviable, opportunity to sit in the center of this firestorm and watch all the different attacks come in," Chertoff said of the immigration battle.
The secretary said he was "optimistic" that immigration legislation will clear Congress, given a willingness on both sides to compromise. "The essence of compromise is the recognition that the way to achieve something good for most people is for everybody to recognize they can't insist on a 100 percent win. It is going to have to be a win for everybody."
He was critical of those who say the best course of action is not to pass legislation dealing with those in the US illegally. "Lately what I have heard is, 'Well, just let them be; let them stay' – what George Will called benign neglect," Chertoff said. "I consider that a silent amnesty. I consider that a way of saying we really are going to let them stay but we are not going to be candid about it. We are not going to tell the American public that we are essentially giving [illegal immigrants] a de facto amnesty."
At the start of the breakfast, columnist and PBS commentator Mark Shields asked Chertoff if he regretted calling Sen. Edward Kennedy, an ally in the battle for immigration reform, "awesome." Mr. Shields quipped that it had made Chertoff the second-least-popular person among conservative bloggers, after Hillary Clinton.
"I am not a guy from Washington so I am always kind of fascinated by the weird culture of people in Washington politics," Chertoff responded. "I can disagree with someone but still respect their capabilities and I can like them personally.... I don't believe that disagreement has to lead to warfare and that people who have different political philosophies are your enemy.... I know who the enemy is. He is sitting in a cave over there in Pakistan."
While a relative newcomer, Chertoff appears to enjoy the Washington social scene. He was spotted Tuesday evening at the picnic President Bush hosted for members of Congress on the White House South Lawn. "The jambalaya was very good," Chertoff told reporters.
The secretary oversees a department with some 180,000 employees, the third-largest workforce in the federal government. Formed after 9/11 from 22 separate agencies, there have been notable missteps including the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during hurricane Katrina. More recently, border guards let tuberculosis patient Andrew Speaker cross from Canada into the US despite his being on a watch list. Some critics have said the department is too big and composed of too many disparate parts to manage effectively.
Chertoff disagrees. "The idea that the solution to every problem is to always reorganize everything is completely boneheaded," he said. "There comes a point where you have to recognize you don't grow a plant by tearing it up at the roots every year. You have to let it grow. In this case we actually have convincingly demonstrated the value of integration.... So I don't think this department is too big to manage."
But he adds a note of caution. Integration of the various parts of DHS, "is not going to happen overnight because nothing happens overnight. It doesn't happen overnight in the private sector, it doesn't happen overnight in the public sector."
When asked what about his job kept him up at night, Chertoff said he usually slept well. "In the long run I worry, of course, about a weapon of mass destruction," he said. "But I would say in the short run I worry about a developing complacency and cynicism about the threat that we are facing" from Islamic extremism.
"I do worry that we are beginning to swing in the other direction.... People [are] starting to be unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices in order to make sure that we can continue to disrupt and repel" attacks on the US, he said.
Responding to complaints from Congress and travelers, DHS announced June 20 that it would delay for at least six months a rule requiring Americans to present passports when crossing the US border by land or sea. [Editor's note: The original version did not report this announcement.]
But Chertoff remains convinced that without tougher rules, terrorists will use fake travel documents to sneak into the country. "Either we care about the security of the country and we are prepared to take a little bit of inconvenience to put it in place or we really don't care ... and we are prepared to live with the consequences," he said.