During a confirmation hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday that lasted more than three hours, U.S. Appeals Judge Michael Chertoff pledged to develop a strategic plan for the department to determine how resources should be allocated, review the effectiveness of the national color-coded alert system, meet with federal labor union representatives, and support whistleblowers who come forward to reveal problems.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, said that the situation Chertoff is stepping into at the department "can only be described as dysfunctional."
Chertoff outlined a number of management initiatives he would pursue if confirmed. For example, he acknowledged that the development of DHS personnel regulations has been contentious, and pledged to meet with union leaders early in his tenure if confirmed.
"I also know from my experience that this department will not succeed unless the people with whom I serve, if I'm confirmed as secretary, feel that their service is appreciated and treated fairly," he said. "And I understand that there is some controversy and concern about some of the changes that were announced in the most recent regulations.... We obviously have stages of implementation to go, and I think we ought to be informed in how we make these decisions by how the people who serve at DHS feel about it."
He also said DHS needs a comprehensive strategy to determine priorities and funding allocations.
"My general philosophy on all of these issues of protecting our vulnerable infrastructure is to be disciplined about identifying and prioritizing so that we're not spending all of our effort on one type of infrastructure--for example, aviation--and neglecting other parts such as ports and cargo."
Chertoff said he believes homeland security grant funding should be based on risk and vulnerability assessments, but he did not rule out continuing to give areas with less people some funding.
"We cannot protect everything, everywhere, every time," he said. "We have to make choices, and so we have to be disciplined and intelligent about the way we make those choices, and that means having a strategy."
Chertoff also said he would consider creating a position of assistant secretary for cybersecurity, adding that he would bring someone onto his staff who "really understands computers."
Chertoff pledged to elevate the clout of DHS within the government, even if that meant taking on the powerful secretary of Defense. "I am prepared to use every faculty at my command to make sure that we get the job done," he said.
Since 2003, Chertoff has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which covers Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and the Virgin Islands. Prior to that, he was the former chief of the Justice Department's criminal division, where he helped formulate the administration's policy immediately after the 9/11 attacks and helped create and implement the 2001 USA Patriot Act.
"I believe that the secretary of Homeland Security will have to be mindful of the need to reconcile the imperatives of security with the preservation of liberty and privacy," Chertoff told the committee. "If I am confirmed as secretary, we will work as a department to improve our technology, strengthen our management practices, secure our borders and transportation systems--and most importantly--focus each and every day on keeping America safe from attacks."
Chertoff added that he had "the rare experience of managing a critical government organization under the stress of a national emergency."
Several members of the committee asked what advice Chertoff gave during his tenure at Justice with regard to detaining immigrants after the attacks and developing policy for interrogations, especially at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Chertoff condemned the use of torture, and said he gave federal officials only broad advice that if they had doubts about their actions they should make sure they were acting within the confines of the law. Chertoff said he did not recall discussing specifics about interrogation techniques, adding that he did not deal with "hypotheticals."
He admitted, however, that the administration made mistakes when it came to detaining and interrogating immigrants immediately after the attacks. He said the administration erred in how long it took to clear detainees and also how detainees were treated, including being denied access to counsel.
"The point of detention is not to mistreat people, but it is to accomplish the result of allowing the investigative process to go forward, always--and I want to underline always--to the extent the law permits, and always under the supervision of a judge, be it an immigration judge or a federal judge if it's a criminal case."
He repeatedly said the government needs better intelligence, training and databases when it comes to handling detainees and determining whether they are guilty of wrongdoing.
A coalition of 24 nonprofit organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, issued a letter Tuesday calling Chertoff's record "troubling" and asking the committee to obtain clear commitments from him to protect civil liberties if confirmed.
The committee plans to vote on the nomination Monday.