Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 25, 2006

Atlantic Magazine interviews Sec. Chertoff

Filed under: DHS News — by Christian Beckner on July 25, 2006

Stuart Taylor has a long interview with Sec. Chertoff on the website of The Atlantic magazine. It’s an insightful interview, largely because of Taylor’s well-researched questions and his follow-ups to Chertoff’s initial answers to certain questions. It’s behind The Atlantic’s subscription wall, but below are some notable excerpts:

On Chertoff’s qualifications to run DHS:

Nobody doubts your intelligence, your dedication, [or] your legal skills. But what qualifies you to run a brand new department consolidating 22 sub-agencies with 184,000 employees? Is there anything that you’ve learned the hard way that you wish you had known from the start?

Yeah. I think that, when I took the job, what I had in mind was my experience when I was at the Department of Justice, having to bring a lot of different teams together—whether it was the FBI or the IRS, state and local law enforcement—to build a case or to build an investigation and drive it through the conclusion. And I felt that the key to success in the job I did as a prosecutor was bringing a lot of groups together and forcing them to identify their mission and driving them to accomplish the mission. The one thing about being a prosecutor is that it’s a very unforgiving job. You know when you’ve won and you know when you’ve lost. And so you have a very clear sense of the fact that success in the end is the only real measure that counts.

So that was the philosophy I think I brought into that role [and] into this job. And although the scale here is much greater, in some ways the challenge is the same. You’ve got a lot of different components, and you’ve got to transform them from agencies that are focused on doing their own jobs to a team of agencies that are focused on an overall mission. And I do think the experience I had making cases and making tough cases and working with a lot of different agencies has been a real help in this job.

On what he sees as the greatest homeland security threats:

I prioritize nuclear and biological events at the top of the heap. And radiological and chemical close behind because they have the largest capacity to affect the largest number of people and to really be earth-shattering in terms of the impact on the United States. That’s not to say we don’t also look at bombings in subways and bombings in supermarkets and shopping malls, but as bad as those things are, they are the kinds of threats we have dealt with previously and we are well-equipped to deal with. The catastrophic event is the kind that has never happened before and that could really be just transformative in its disastrous effect. So I think that, from a federal standpoint in particular, where we add real value is in developing the tools to prevent, protect against, and respond to those catastrophic events. We still want to be mindful of the less catastrophic and work across the board to raise the level of terrorism [preparedness], but nuclear and biological are, to me, at the top of the heap in terms of consequence.

His reflections on the Dubai Ports World controversy:

Dubai Ports was never going to be entrusted with the seaports. They were going to buy a company that basically owns and operates the cranes that lift the containers out of the cargo holes and puts them on the dock until they can be moved off by trucks. The impact and the danger to security was negligible and, as a condition of agreeing on the deal, we had actually put into place agreements that would have given us much greater security and much greater control of the security overseas than we would have had without the acquisition.

So the furor about Dubai Ports to me is a case where the politics and the public appearance overwhelmed what actually was a perfectly rational and sensible decision. And I think in a nutshell that sums up the challenge of homeland security. To do this job right, we’re often required just to make a lot of decisions that are a little complicated. [The decisions] require a fair amount of factual investigation and sometimes they require us to balance a lot of different considerations. It’s been really hard sometimes to sum that up in a sound byte. And it’s easy to take something like Dubai Ports and say, “Arabs, ports, bad.” I think that it was unfortunate—not only in the individual case, because I think it led to a result that was probably unfair to the company—but [also because] I have since heard from our allies overseas, “What are we going to make of America now? Does that mean that if we help Americans but we’re foreigners, Americans are going to retaliate against us?” And one of the things I said at the time and I believe to be true is [that] it would be a shame if the message we sent to the world was, “We don’t understand who our friends are and we’re going to punish our friends.” To me, one of the huge issues we face in homeland security is how do we boil down and explain decisions that are sometimes complicated and even difficult in a way that is immediately intelligible in a world of blogs and instant messages and slogans.

Since he mentions blogs, I’ll respond to this with a bit of friendly advice: DHS can use blogs and other new media to its advantage if it makes the effort. I try to assess DHS fairly, based on the facts, in a way that acknowledges that the people running DHS have a very tough job. But when issues like the NY/DC grant controversy and the National Asset Database IG report come along, it’s difficult for me (and I would imagine, for the DHS beat reporters) to respond positively, because the backdrop to these issues and decisions are kept opaque, and it seems like the only information coming out of the DHS press office at these times is spin or snarky criticism. Similarly, on the Dubai Ports World issue, I wanted to write more posts that were sympathetic to the Department’s perspective, but DHS was slow to publicly circulate information about the scope of the deal that would have made it possible for me to write timely, favorable posts. A greater effort to increase transparency at DHS – something that can be done without “helping the terrorists” – would go a long way to improving the favorability of media and blogosphere commentary on the Department.

Finally, Sec. Chertoff on chemical security legislation (emphasis added):

But I am the first person to tell you, I think this year we owe the American people a chemical security bill that we can put into law, and then with that we can start the process of correcting exactly the kind of freeloader problem you’ve identified.

It’s time to get this done. Sec. Chertoff, and possibly even the White House, need to put their credibility on the line and get certain intransigent Senators to stop stalling this legislation.

Update (8/1): The link to the interview no longer works. For some reason The Atlantic took it down.

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