Chertoff looks back on homeland-security efforts

The secretary is candid about some shortcomings as the fifth anniversary of the Homeland Security Department approaches. But he also cites progress.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security was Wednesday's guest.

The upcoming fifth anniversary of the Homeland Security Department prompted Secretary Michael Chertoff to meet with reporters Wednesday to assess progress in getting his sprawling department to function in an effective and unified way.

The department was founded in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It includes a slew of disparate agencies – from the Coast Guard to Customs and Border Protection to the Secret Service. With 208,000 employees and a budget approaching $50 billion, the massive department formally began operation on March 1, 2003.

Mr. Chertoff, who became secretary in February 2005, underwent a baptism of fire as a result of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's poor response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He told journalists at Wednesday's Monitor-sponsored breakfast that considerable progress has been made.

"We've got a lot more to do, but I think we are going to leave for the next administration a pretty well-functioning department," Chertoff said. "The biggest [question] my successor will face is, 'Does the public and does Congress have the will to stick to the program, or are we going to start seeing people cannibalize Homeland Security because we have not been attacked for six years?' "

Perhaps because he will leave his post in less than a year, Chertoff was both blunt and witty in describing his frustrations with the way the federal government operates. "One thing I am sick and tired of is an approach to everything we do, which is, 'Let's not pay attention until the disaster happens. Then we will have a hearing. We will punish somebody, and then we will spend a lot of money making up for what happened afterwards.' "

Chertoff, the son of a rabbi, described that approach as "just backwards." And he added, "We have a moral responsibility, actually, to invest now, particularly in things that may not harvest during our term in office, because that is why you take these jobs. That is what your moral responsibility is. If you are only interested in making yourself look good and benefiting yourself through applause, go to the private sector."

The secretary's first tour in Washington was as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. That followed his graduation with honors from Harvard College and Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.

Chertoff gave up a lifetime appointment as a judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to become the second secretary of Homeland Security.

Other career way marks include service as US attorney for New Jersey, special counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee, partner in the firm of Latham & Watkins, and assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division of the US Justice Department, a post he held on Sept. 11, 2001.

While he does note progress, virtually all Chertoff's public appearances also include a warning against complacency over future attacks on the homeland. "Complacency is the greatest enemy that we have and the greatest challenge we have," he told a Senate committee earlier this month.

At the breakfast, the secretary was asked about threats from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. "Although clearly worse off than they were prior to 9/11," Chertoff said, "in the last year they have had somewhat more freedom of movement in the frontier areas of Pakistan, and that has given them more capability to plan and train and communicate." He added, "That is not a sign of an imminent threat, but it suggests something to be concerned about from a strategic standpoint."

One area where there has been considerable progress, Chertoff said, is in scanning shipping containers entering the US for radiation that would indicate the presence of a nuclear weapon. But he added this sobering note. "There is a little bit of a tendency in the media to treat [shipping containers] as if [they are] the only threat." He continued, "I think small boats are a potential threat; I think general aviation coming from overseas is a potential threat.... If you had a nuclear bomb, it might make more sense to bring it in with a private airplane than to stick it into a container. So the good news is that we are looking at these other things as well."

The government will expand its experiment with a virtual fence using radar, infrared sensors, and airborne drones to defend the border, Chertoff said. "We will expand the virtual fence contrary to what some have incorrectly reported," he said. "There are some things in it that we want to improve, and there are some things probably it turns out we don't really need. But I envision that we would use this design in other parts of the border but not in the entirety of the border."

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