Politics & Policy

Talking With Chertoff

The Bush administration sent many members to the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, back in January. (This, as you know, is the annual global confab in tiny Davos, Switzerland.) One of those members was Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security.

Chertoff has a reputation for being one of the brainiest people in government–a reputation an encounter with him does nothing to belie. A lawyer, he clerked for Justice Brennan. Later, he was a U.S. attorney, then special counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee. (Remember those vexing days?)

In the first years of the George W. Bush administration, Chertoff worked as assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the Justice Department. Then–a judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Bush named him homeland-security secretary a year ago.

Chertoff is a wiry, intense-seeming man. He looks like a dedicated long-distance runner. Whether he is one, I have no idea, but he looks like one.

I spoke to him in Davos, one morning at his hotel. My first question: Why hasn’t the U.S. been hit in over four years? Why hasn’t there been another 9/11?

Chertoff says that government measures have to be credited–both those undertaken abroad and those undertaken at home. In the first category: killing members of al Qaeda; capturing others; interrogating them. In the second category: better screening at the border and on airplanes. A variety of measures have made our country safer–you can’t pick out a single one and say, “That’s it.”

What about the NSA surveillance program? Chertoff says that this is the kind of tool that “could well have made a difference,” if it had been available before 9/11. In general, “the most significant tactic in the war against terrorism is intelligence gathering.” And “a significant part of that” concerns communications intelligence.

Chertoff uses the analogy of radar–a means by which to intercept and prevent attacks.

And is it legal, this program? Chertoff speaks about a “very strong basis in the law for what the president has done,” although, of course, “people can debate anything.” Chertoff cites the authority of the FISA court of review. He further notes that, traditionally, when a person or an object–or a phone call–crosses a border, the government is given extraordinary power.

What’s more, the Fourth Amendment is not a “real problem,” for the NSA program. This is an amendment that’s “couched in pragmatic terms.” It speaks of “unreasonable searches and seizures,” etc. And let us be reasonable: OSHA can come into your business and search without a warrant. And if the government can search for labor-law violations without a warrant–what about searching for terrorists coming in from overseas?

In any case, says Chertoff, all of this will eventually be sorted out by the Supreme Court.

I ask whether Americans are complacent. He says, Americans, no; “certain elites,” yes. For there are some in the “intellectual class” who have convinced themselves that what happened on 9/11 was an aberration. They are loath to give up 9/10 thinking. “But if you talk to people on the street, in New York and Washington, where scars are still visible,” you find that they are aware of the threat.

“People don’t want their daily lives ruled by fear,” Chertoff says. So we have to figure out an “architecture” for our security–we must respect privacy, promote prosperity, protect lives. This is a tall order. But we need “something we can live with over the long run,” a system that avoids extremes (of laxity or rigidity).

Chertoff pleads for an “honest debate” about security–what we’re doing right, what could use adjusting, and so on. And “I think people,” in general, “are willing to have that debate.”

I mention that, at a panel the previous day, James Rubin made a remarkable statement. Rubin is the former Madeleine Albright aide who is now with Sky News. He moderated a panel on security, one that included Chertoff, FBI director Robert Mueller, and deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick.

At the very end of the session, Rubin said, in essence, “We’re all in this together. It doesn’t help matters when you call your opponents weak or unpatriotic.” The remark had come out of the blue; it was related to nothing (nothing obvious). And the panelists had no chance to respond–that was it.

I ask Chertoff, “What about this?” Chertoff says that he was surprised by Rubin’s statement, for the panel had been completely respectful–”no one had criticized anyone with a different point of view.” Moreover, Chertoff has never heard members of the administration blast anyone in a McCarthyite fashion. The administration sometimes says that its critics are misguided, or ill informed–”but I don’t think anyone has ever questioned anybody else’s motives.”

Chertoff himself doesn’t question his critics’ motives: “I ask whether they’re being realistic about the [terrorist] threat.”

And he knows that the administration drives many people around the bend. If the president or someone else talks about the threat, “we’re waving the bloody shirt” or “exploiting the threat for some political purpose.” But Americans “kid themselves” if they don’t recognize the serious nature of international terrorism. “I certainly didn’t need bin Laden’s last statement to remind me.” Al Qaeda and other terrorists are “intent on carrying out attacks against the homeland.” They have “no scruples” about slaughtering innocents, wherever they may be found. “And if we don’t face up to it and look it in the eye, we’re doing ourselves a real disservice.”

Chertoff has an observation about “people who put their head in the sand”: “I don’t think they’re serving civil liberties.” Because if you downplay the threat and an attack comes, “there will be a cry for an even more vigorous response.” Supporting reasonable measures now is “the best way to guard against overreaction” later.

I remind Chertoff that many conservatives–including the editors of National Review–opposed the creation of the Homeland Security Department. Does the experience of the department prove that we were wrong?

Chertoff says he thinks it does. The strength of the department, he says, lies in its “ability to develop a comprehensive planning process and implement it across the board.” It has in its grasp all the tools necessary to establish security. “I won’t tell you that right now we have fully realized the potential of the department”–for one thing, DHS is only three years old. And the melding of disparate organizations is “always a time-consuming process.” But “we’ve begun to see what some of that potential is.”

The secretary likens the Homeland Security Department to the Defense Department–it took some time, all those decades ago, to integrate the various branches of the military. And every American will benefit from the new department’s “synergy.”

The Patriot Act? Chertoff virtually wrote it, while at the Justice Department. When I suggest this, Chertoff demurs–but quickly says, “It’s fair to say I was one of the authors. I’m not running away from it. I think it was a great act–but I want to share credit.”

Look, he says: Lots of things that come up in the War on Terror “engender debate”–but “the Patriot Act is not a hard question. It’s a no-brainer.” There is nothing in the act, continues Chertoff, that would establish a procedure or tactic that is not well precedented, often used in other contexts. Take the information sharing: Nobody could have a “serious quarrel” with that. Before the Patriot Act, the government was fighting “with one hand tied behind its back.”

Roving wiretaps, delayed notification–techniques like these have been used for ages, in drug cases, fraud cases, organized-crime cases. Chertoff’s main argument is: If you can use delayed notification when investigating marijuana dealers, why should you not be able to use it when investigating bomb-makers? For heaven’s sake!

I know that Chertoff is not a great one to whine, or to self-dramatize–but I can’t help noting that “head of homeland security” is a rather heavy burden to bear. I think of what Bush told Attorney General Ashcroft, on September 11: “John, it’s your job to see to it that this never happens again.”

Chertoff smiles and recalls that Ashcroft repeated this admonition, on many occasions–and part of Chertoff’s own job at Justice was to execute Bush’s order. As for his current job, Chertoff says that he entered it with his eyes wide open: He had, after all, done similar work at DoJ.

There are a couple elements of the job that are “really challenging,” says Chertoff. First: How do you go about disrupting attacks? You can’t afford to wait until you get a big, big case–the one where you can say, “Ha! We stopped that one, in the nick of time!” If you wait until terrorists’ plans are almost operational, “you are playing with fire.”

DHS’s job is to intervene in order to avert dangers, at the earliest stages possible, with the legal tools that are available. Before a fellow is able to make a bomb, get him on forged identification. Deport him for violating immigration laws–whatever. This is the old spitting-on-the-sidewalk wisdom.

“I completely understand,” says Chertoff, that “we’re going to get criticized,” in the following manner: People will say, “These are just trivial cases,” what the Department of Homeland Security is doing. “Where’s the big case?” Well, says Chertoff, “we’re not in this job to hold a big press conference,” announcing a big case: “We’re in this to disrupt attacks well before they come to fruition.”

DHS labors under a handicap, says Chertoff. People suggest that the department, and the administration, are overblowing things. The feds arrest a bunch of people who trained in a training camp. There’s no evidence of an actual plot. But, explains Chertoff, if you have to wait until an actual plot develops–look at London, on July 7. If you had encountered those terrorists weeks before, they would have seemed normal, upstanding British citizens. “The timeframe within which these people went from sympathizers with radicals to actual operators” was very short. “You can’t take the chance” that such people will move according to your own, leisurely, orderly timetable.

Also, says Chertoff, the papers are full of hapless-looking arrestees. They have families; they seem disoriented, pathetic. Remember the shoe bomber? He looked like a homeless guy. The subtext is, “These guys aren’t very smart–how can they really be dangerous?” But, says Chertoff, “I spent a lot of years as a prosecutor,” working on organized-crime cases. “You don’t have to be smart to be a killer. Most of the killers we caught were pretty stupid.”

Nor does it take a lot of brains to detonate a bomb. But what these killers and terrorists have in common is “a psychopathic remorselessness.” They don’t look like James Bond, or like Carlos the Jackal, when he’s portrayed at his most glamorous. They look more like the shoe bomber. But that doesn’t mean they can’t kill hundreds or thousands of people at a stroke.

Another big challenge to the Homeland Security Department? Risk management. “Everyone pays lip service” to this concept, but, in reality, everyone wants his own risk covered. We must not bankrupt ourselves; we have to prioritize. We have to be disciplined about identifying threats, and their potential consequences. DHS takes endless criticism for its judgments: Harry Reid says, “You’re incompetent, you’re stupid.” And that is a political challenge to what ought to be a “disciplined, analytic approach” to the allocation of our security capabilities.

So, the public must be educated about what counterterrorism really involves; and risk management has to be effected, in the face of political maneuvering. The DHS agenda will not be driven, says Chertoff, by media image, or politics, or anything other than hardheaded reasoning.

When he leaves his job, he says, the War on Terror won’t be over–but if the department is on a solid footing, if it is using resources “in a disciplined way,” if it is not playing politics, “then it was worth it.”

I ask what I often ask people who work with or around the president: “What’s Bush like?”

Chertoff says that he is “very confident in his set of values and in his set of priorities, very committed to the obligation to protect this country.” There is no doubt that 9/11 was a transformative moment for him, and his presidency. “I think he views his presidency as an opportunity and an obligation to exercise all of his authority in pursuit of very important things, such as protecting the country, fostering prosperity, getting this country equipped to compete in the 21st century.” He’s not in the job in order to receive “kudos in the newspapers,” or to “tinker around at the margins.” No, his general approach is, “We have an opportunity to do some important things, and shame on us if we don’t do our very best.”

A big question: Does the Holocaust hover in the background of all this–the War on Terror, recent Iranian pronouncements, and so on? Chertoff says it’s not so much the Holocaust as World War II at large.

Churchill and those like him–those few like him–knew that “wishful thinking and the desire to appease” are “very seductive, and very dangerous.” There is a natural human tendency to want to avoid conflict, and figure out, “Is there some way we can accommodate our enemy and avoid armed struggle?” And war is always the last resort. “But the lesson of World War II and the Holocaust is, sometimes you have to look evil in the face, and you have to say, ‘There is no accommodation, there is no appeasement–those are merely way stations to further surrender.’”

And in such circumstances, you’re better off facing reality and taking strong measures early than waiting till you find yourself in the last ditch. It may actually be too late to defend yourself effectively.

We must not forget that we’re dealing with people, now, “whose ideology is one that is rooted in hostility to our values.”

Americans–some of them–are uncomfortable saying, “These are the things we value, these are the things that are important to us.” We want to be extremely tolerant of all points of view. But we should not renounce our ability to say, “This is right, this is wrong.”

That’s one thing about the president: “He’s perfectly willing to say, ‘This is right, this is wrong,’” and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But, says Chertoff, “I disagree: At the end of the day, if we’re not prepared to identify right and wrong, and defend our values and our lives, in a clear-eyed way, then I think we’re putting our society at risk.”

Michael Chertoff has a lot more to say. But that’s all the time we have. And he has used it well.


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