In Chertoff, Safe Choice

Article excerpt

Of all the points on Michael Chertoff's resume, the most important for now may be that he appears confirmable. At George W. Bush's announcement Tuesday nominating Judge Chertoff to become the next secretary of Homeland Security, the president pointedly noted that Chertoff has already been confirmed by the Senate three times for previous posts.

In contrast with the colorful Bernard Kerik - Bush's first choice for Homeland Security, who withdrew from consideration after multiple ethical issues came to light - Chertoff brings to the table long experience in Washington and in legal matters. Now a federal appeals judge in New Jersey, Chertoff is a former federal prosecutor who led the Department of Justice's criminal division from 2001 to 2003. After the 9/11 attacks, he played a key role in forming US legal strategy.

Chertoff's selection came as a surprise; many in Washington and in the homeland security field see the management of the big new bureaucracy as a central challenge, and Chertoff is not seen foremost as a manager. The department, formed after 9/11, integrates the operations of 22 preexisting agencies, and has been criticized for moving slowly on enhancing protection of borders and ports and generally integrating all its disparate parts.

"The next director has to grow the agency beyond the teething stage," says Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center and former deputy director of the National Intelligence Council.

To the American public, perhaps the most visible aspect of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is its color-coded terror alert system - a post-9/11 creation designed to help first responders, and Americans in general, maintain the appropriate level of vigilance at a time of continuing terrorist threat. But the system was quickly lampooned, and over time some have had a sense that the alert system risked being dismissed as the government crying wolf. Departing DHS secretary Tom Ridge himself has indicated that the system needs to be rethought.

Chertoff brings to the job credentials as a law-and-order conservative, having aggressively supported the birth of the Patriot Act, which civil libertarians have been fighting since its inception. But, say people who have worked with Chertoff from a different political perspective, he's capable of working across the aisle.

"He's someone you can talk to who hears different viewpoints," says Juliette Kayyem, a homeland security expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School who served on a terrorism task force with Chertoff. …