Homeland Security chief looks back, and forward

Department's biggest challenge is keeping country positioned "between hysteria and complacency" on security, secretary says.

In his three years as secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff has weathered relentless congressional criticism, the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005, and a failed bid for immigration reform. But he is upbeat about his department, the shape in which he leaves it, and the future of border security. In a recent interview with National Journal, Chertoff warned about national complacency toward terrorism, praised his department's efforts to prepare for the upcoming transition, and questioned whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be taking on reconstruction efforts. Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

NJ: What are the top challenges facing your successor?

Chertoff: The biggest challenge is to keep the country's focus on the commitment that has been made to protect the country, whether it is securing identification, securing borders, protecting our critical infrastructure, or cybersecurity. All these things at some level impact people in a way that is inconvenient or bad for their business or may tax their patience. Keeping us positioned between hysteria and complacency -- which is where we have to be -- that, I think, is the biggest challenge.

NJ: Is the focus slipping?

Chertoff: Increasingly, some people are saying that terrorism is not that big a threat. That is really going back to the mentality of pre-September 11, 2001. I'm not saying that every day the sky is going to fall. But if we don't recognize the struggle we are in as a significant existential struggle then it is going to be very hard to maintain the focus.

NJ: Now that it has been a while since the attacks, do you think that critics of the administration have changed their position from what they were saying immediately after 9/11? Do they now say that maybe we don't need to work very hard on security?

Chertoff: I don't think the general public thinks that. I think that in elite public opinion there are some that have begun to step away from the idea that we need to do the kind of things that the 9/11 commission recommended. Their argument is really that [the administration's policy] is overbroad. I have heard people say, "We've had fearmongering the last seven years." I kind of scratch my head. Fearmongering, to me, is the 1950s and the belief that the communists were going to take over the United States. If I go back to Lower Manhattan and there is this big hole in the ground where the twin towers were, I don't think there was fearmongering there.

I don't think there was fearmongering in August 2006 when terrorists tried to get on planes and blow them up over the Atlantic. I don't think there was fearmongering in Germany last year, when they disrupted a plot from the Islamic jihadists who had been planning to blow up locations in Germany. I don't think it was fear-mongering in the attacks in Glasgow and London last year.

NJ: What would you list as your biggest accomplishments and biggest mistakes as secretary?

Chertoff: We have made it dramatically harder to get into the country if you are a bad person. If you come to a port of entry, we now have the capability to compare [finger]prints against latent fingerprints that we pick up in safe houses overseas or battlefields around the world, which are kept in a database. We now analyze travel data so that we can see connections: phone connections, monetary connections, travel arrangement connections between visitors and potential terrorists. We now have much more secure travel documents. I don't think it is an accident that we have seen attacks overseas that have not happened here. I think it is because we have raised the bar.

Disappointments: I'm sorry we didn't get an immigration bill last year. I thought we came very close, but I think a combination of timing and the lack of credibility about what the government put up on the border over 30 years, I think those two things snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. I think [the effort] was worthwhile. I think the template that was laid out will eventually be a template that Congress will return to.

NJ: Do you plan to stay in your job until January 20, 2009?

Chertoff: God and the president willing, I'm going to stay to the end.

NJ: Where is the department in terms of meeting staff goals for the upcoming transition, to ensure that there are enough career employees to fill positions now held by political appointees?

Chertoff: In terms of our senior positions, our vacancy rate is 10 percent, which is about average. At virtually every significant element of the department, the No. 1 or No. 2 or No. 3 person is a career person. We have been trying hard; I think we have been pretty much completely successful in getting career people with experience in those spots where they can just pick up as soon as the political people leave.

NJ: It seems that every other week a congressional committee puts heat on the department. Is Congress creating a wrong impression that you are not keeping up with its mandates?

Chertoff: If you pay attention to the Congress over time, you have the impression there is recognition of progress. I agree that an individual letter or individual negative report or a sound bite at a hearing can take fire and all of a sudden be a criticism. I also recognize that it is the nature of our agency that we interact with more people than any other agency of the United States government. We have 280,000 people. If 1 percent screw up, that's 2,800 people. That's a lot of potential to screw up.

NJ: It seems as if this will be the nature of the department going forward. There are so many points of public interaction that criticism and complaints are just going to come with the territory. Is that true?

Chertoff: I'm afraid it is, in this sense: Nobody likes to go through security at the airport. And the longer we go before a bomb goes off on a plane, the harder it's going to be for people, on an emotional level, to understand why they have to go through the hassle. But if we drop it and a bomb goes off in a plane, then people are going to say, "Why didn't they take precautions?" And that is in some ways the conundrum of homeland security. It's like getting vaccinated. You don't know you wouldn't have gotten polio if you hadn't gotten vaccinated, but you would sure be foolish if you didn't get vaccinated.

NJ: Looking back, how do you rate the effectiveness of the department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in responding to the needs of citizens and businesses affected by the hurricanes in 2005?

Chertoff: I think that there's one organizational structure change I have begun to talk about. I don't know that FEMA ought to be a reconstruction agency. I think that when you get into a deep, long-standing reconstruction effort, you're beginning to deal with issues like public health, social services, education, and housing policy. Not only are these [multi-agency] issues but they are not necessarily in the skill set of people who are at FEMA, who are really there to give immediate shelter and immediate assistance.

FEMA's core mission is emergency management. It's not reconstruction. We maybe need an agency or a capability to reconstruct. But maybe that should not be in FEMA, or in DHS. Maybe that should be in Health and Human Services or in Housing and Urban Development. I know that's unusual for a secretary to give up something. I just think it's not in the core mission. And that's the one area where I think I would encourage someone to take a look.

This kind of resonates back to the theme I raised initially about terrorism. And maybe this is kind of my philosophical looking back three years and looking forward. In many cases, particularly in response to an emergency, there's an immediate time pressure to come up with a solution where there's only a set of imperfect options. And our obligation is to make the best choice we can under the circumstances.

But to criticize the people who work for the agency because it's not a perfect choice is a little bit like criticizing the fire department because when they came in to rescue you from your house they tracked muddy boots onto your kitchen floor. I mean, it's not a reasonable criticism. And if you ask people to do something in an emergency, and then you don't back them up if they made a reasonable good-faith choice -- I don't mean a bad-faith choice or a negligent choice. If they made a reasonable good-faith choice -- if you don't back that up, then you're sending a message of paralysis; you are sending a message to be cautious.

I would like us to perform perfectly in emergencies, whether they're natural disasters or not. I realize it's the nature of the beast that there will be rough-and-ready decisions that have to be made, and there'll be a certain percentage of mistakes and foul-ups. We try to minimize them, but I think it's fair to be charitable in our hindsight judgment. And so that's kind of what ties everything together for me.