Catastrophe Management

Michael Chertoff tells Atlantic contributor Stuart Taylor Jr. what it's like to run the Department of Homeland Security. The full transcript
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You didn't need this job. You were a judge on a prestigious federal appeals court. The President asked you to take over a gigantic department seen by many experts as an unwieldy behemoth designed to thwart the best efforts of even the most gifted manager. Why did you take it?

Principally because of my experiences on 9/11. I was the head of the [Department of Justice's] Criminal Division. I was very much involved in our response, including the strategy that we used to disrupt other attacks. And I guess, coming out of that crucible, I had a sense that, as someone who has spent most of my life in public service, there was probably not going to be a more important task for my generation than dealing with the issue of the war against terror. So, given the opportunity to make a contribution and with the understanding that the President thought I could make a contribution, [this] is probably one of the few jobs that I would have left the bench for.

Are you glad you took the job? Is it fun?

"Fun" is not the right word. I mean, in some ways it is enormously gratifying. I work with some tremendous people, and I think we've actually accomplished a lot in the last year in reconfiguring the department. But there are times when it's frustrating, and it's difficult for anybody, I think, to be happy when you get criticism that's unfair. Sometimes it's just difficult to move a large organization quickly. I'd like to see things get done yesterday that sometimes take weeks and even months because the process has a lot of stakeholders and legal requirements, and it just takes time.

Although federal appeals court judges do have prestige, they tend to be buried in very quiet, very technical work [and] locked up with their law clerks. I think Mario Cuomo compared it to being in a tomb. (He was talking about the Supreme Court.) With the war on, was that too far from the action?

I think part of it was that. With the war on, and having been in the war, so to speak, for two years as head of the Criminal Division, I did feel a little bit as if I had retired from the field of battle at a point [when] the battle was still raging. And I hadn't been a judge for that long. But coming back to the fray in something that I deeply believe in, which is the need to build a response to terrorism that we can live with over the long haul—not something that's very aggressive [. . .] to a level that can't be sustained, but one that we can really sustain over the next five, ten years—[I really couldn't say no] to the invitation to come and participate in building that system.

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.

You inherited many politically appointed senior managers with little expertise for their jobs. The famous "Brownie," Michael Brown at FEMA, is everybody's favorite example. Why didn't you say, "Mr. President, I'd be honored to take this position, but only if I can hire and fire my own senior staff"?

The people I've hired have all been people I selected and wanted. I guess legend has it that I've been saddled with people I didn't want. Now, obviously I inherited people, and it took a little bit of time to achieve a turnover. Some people I would have liked to keep, some people I frankly wasn't sorry to see go. One of the challenges for me coming in, though, was not to completely vacate the place and then have to go through what is a very time-consuming process to repopulate. And that's why, maybe in a couple of cases, there were people who stayed on who had a confusion of loyalties.

Do you want to elaborate on that?

Well, I mean, in Mike Brown's testimony [to a Senate committee in February], he basically acknowledged that he was deliberately insubordinate. Obviously, had he been candid with me at the time that he just wasn't capable of functioning under my leadership, I would have said, "Mike, I respect that and understand it, and have a nice life." I clearly have a regret that that wasn't clear to me at the time. But I will say that most of the people that I inherited and stayed on did, I think, work hard and had no problem transferring their loyalties to new leadership. Because in the end what this is about is not me, or individuals at the top of the organization. It's about the obligation we owe to the American people and to the President.

Let me make sure I've got what you mean by "deliberately insubordinate." I think he testified that he basically went around you and didn't keep you informed because he'd rather just deal straight with the White House, and he thought he could get more done that way.

Well, I think he got less done, because the White House is not, and should not be, an operational organization that is going to order the Coast Guard helicopters to move from Point A to Point B. If Michael Brown felt he needed something, and that he couldn't do it on his own, and frankly I delegated to him virtually all the authority that I had.

You've taken some grief for that, haven't you?

Well, I have to say, in retrospect, knowing what I know now, I wish I hadn't done that. The one thing I will say is this: I replaced him quickly. By the end of that first week, I had put [Coast Guard Vice] Admiral [Thad] Allen in place to run the operation in New Orleans. Now, had I known at the time what I later learned was in his mind, I would have put Admiral Allen in a week earlier. I can't replay that event, although I can wish I had known what was in his mind at the time rather than when he testified six months later. All I can say is that I was at least pleased that I was able to correct the problem as quickly as I did.

Other than what we just discussed, any mistakes or regrets since you took this job?

There's always a frustration in the time that it takes to get things done. It's just the nature of dealing with things like how long it takes to procure things through the government procurement regulations, or what the various rules and regulations are that govern our ability to promote new standards when we want to put standards out to elevate security. I sometimes find myself wishing that we could accomplish in two or three weeks what it seems to take us two or three or six months to accomplish. But I have to say [that] I knew coming into government that you are dealing with a thicket of procedures and policies that are mandated by law and that, as impatient as I am to get through the job of elevating all the different aspects of security, I can't do it in a way that's going to lay us open to legal challenge, for example, or violate some legal principle.

What are your proudest accomplishments at this stage of the job?

The thing that I thought was most important, and I hope I have achieved to some extent, is an honest and straightforward conversation with the American people that says there's always going to be risk and that, if we really wanted to eliminate risks, we would have to [create] a society so autocratic and encumbered by security that we would have neither our liberty nor our prosperity.

We've got to find a place in the world of homeland security that does allow us to have a free society and does allow us to have prosperity and doesn't just smother us with security. But that means that we have to be honest about the fact that we will be accepting some level of risk if we do that. The extent to which we've incorporated that philosophy into Homeland Security is the thing I'm proudest of.

What ever happened to all those "yellow alerts" and "orange alerts" that used to stir people up when Tom Ridge was DHS Secretary? Did you decide those were silly and just say "stop it"?

We did one. We did "orange" when the British had their attacks on July 7th, and I tried to be really clear [and really focused] about why we did. My view has been that, as we get better intelligence, as we are more confident in our own knowledge about what's going on in our country as well as outside our country, we ought to try to be as precise as possible about how we react to threats. I'm not saying that there aren't occasions when raising the threat level makes sense, either for a particular area or a particular sector or even generally. What I'm saying is that, as we are more targeted in terms of what we are able to detect about a plot or a threat, we don't need to necessarily take a broad-based approach to raising everything across the board. We can be really focused in terms of responding in a very specific way to what the threat is. And that means we don't need to necessarily trigger the whole mechanism of raising alerts.

President Bush initially opposed creating your department. Then he embraced it for what many say were political reasons. Be that as it may, was DHS a good idea?

DHS was a good idea. I was agnostic on it because I wasn't involved in the process of setting it up. But the idea that one ought to unify and synchronize all of those elements of government that relate to security, particularly with respect to terrorism security, and that [one] ought to be able to build a systematic approach to prevention, protection, and response and recovery—I think that makes sense.

And I think that we have actually succeeded in the last year in bringing a lot more unity to these functions and [in] being able to look at a problem not just in terms of "here's a single stove pipe of an agency that has a particular capability and is going to use that capability," but rather beginning by asking the question, "what do we want to accomplish?" Instead of making policy by saying "here's the tool that I have, now how do I use the tool?" we're now in the position to ask the question "what do we want to achieve?" and then "what are the tools we ought to bring to the fight so we can achieve it?" And I don't think you could have done that without this Department. Even though, with the stand-up of the Defense Department in '47, nobody should have been under any illusion that the job of building an integrated department would be done in a year or two years or even three years.

When I ask ordinary people, say my wife, what images come to mind when I say "Michael Chertoff" or "DHS," a lot of them mention two things: the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and the fiasco over entrusting some of our biggest seaports to an outfit called Dubai Ports World, an Arab-owned company. Is that a bum rap?

I want to take the second as an example. 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.

There's a lot of talk in Washington, some by people who admire you personally and have for a long time, that DHS—the Department of Homeland Security—is an organizational disaster, and that no one alive could make it successful. How would you respond?

I think you probably could have said those things about the Department of Defense back in the 1950s. I mean, if you look at the history of the Department of Defense, they spent about thirty years, before Goldwater-Nichols [a 1986 law reorganizing the military services and clarifying the chain of command], with the services fighting among each other, and every service trying to duplicate the effort of every other service. If memory serves me, it was the Iran hostage effort—the failed Iran hostage-rescue effort [of 1980]—that ultimately catalyzed the final reconfiguration of the DOD to make it into what I think most people would acknowledge is a well-functioning organization.

I have to say something else. It is often the case that the perceived solution to every problem is "reorganize." Whether or not people think it was correct to create DHS in the first place, we have it. The absolute worst outcome would be to pull it apart and say, "Now let's reconfigure it again, either as several new organizations or as parts of preexisting organizations." At some point, this constant reorganizational churn distracts us from what is really necessary, which is the hard, not particularly glamorous work of figuring out what you need to do in the various categories of our responsibility—figuring out what are the systems and the operations that will give us the result and then implementing them. Implementation is what needs to be done, and that's the hard and sometimes not very visible work that we're doing every day.

Let me push you on that a little bit. Let's take the Michael Brown situation. Before, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, reported directly to the president. When the head of FEMA needed authority to do something, he'd go straight to the White House. Now, because we have this new structure, he needs to come to you—or at least he should—and then you need to go to the White House, and sometimes you might need to get the Pentagon to give you resources. There are just more layers. Personalities aside, doesn't all that layering inhibit your ability to get the best people to run an agency like FEMA if they're not going to be reporting to the president, but to somebody under the president?

First of all, even in the old days, FEMA had to go to DoD. The director of FEMA never had the authority to order DoD to do anything. That is a completely delusional idea.

You're right. I withdraw the delusional [part of the] question.

FEMA always had to go to other agencies to do things. If FEMA were not part of DHS, instead of the ability that we have to simply say to the Coast Guard, "Go do it," FEMA would have had to come to us and [. . .] ask for a mission assignment for the Coast Guard to do something.

The proof of the pudding is actually what happened in Katrina. By his own admission, what Mike Brown did was report directly to the White House, and during the week that he did that, my sense is that we had less than optimal performance. When I brought Admiral Allen in, Admiral Allen raised the level of performance, but he had no difficulty operating within the structure of DHS. The reality is that my order to Mike Brown and my message to Mike Brown was, "You have all the authority to do whatever you need to do. Just make a decision. Do it. If you need help, if there's something you can't get done, come to me." So there was no bureaucratic impediment to his getting the job done, and the pieces that didn't work well, when I look back, come from the fact that there was planning about things like an evacuation of New Orleans that had not been done not in the two days before the evacuation, which is much too late, but in the weeks and months and years earlier.

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Stuart Taylor Jr., a contributing editor for National Journal, is teaching a course on the news media and the law at Stanford Law School.

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