Catastrophe Management

Michael Chertoff tells Atlantic contributor Stuart Taylor Jr. what it's like to run the Department of Homeland Security. The full transcript

And that brings me to one other great myth, which is that things were better in the 1990s. The fact of the matter is, we didn't have a Katrina in the '90s, and for all those who say, "Well, you know, FEMA failed as part of DHS because of what happened in Katrina," I'd have to say, "Where was the plan for the evacuation of New Orleans that was written in the 1990s?" I've never seen that plan.

As far as I'm aware, the first effort at doing a real plan for the evacuation was done starting in 2003, when DHS absorbed FEMA. And although the plan was far from perfect, I think even people in New Orleans admit that it actually helped them do that initial evacuation of the city when Katrina first approached. So without slamming the people who ran FEMA earlier, who did a fine job with the challenges that they had, we just had never had a challenge like this before. And I think it's as unfair to compare the performance of FEMA last year with ten years ago as it would be to say that because someone played great minor-league ball and then struggled in his first World Series, somehow it means that his minor-league manager was better than his big-league manager.

Putting Katrina and FEMA aside for the moment, one hears complaints that turf wars continue to plague the work of the 22 sub-agencies that were supposed to live happily ever after as part of DHS. One hears, for example, that the Coast Guard and the Secret Service were reluctant to share information with your intelligence arm. What about that?

That actually is something we fixed. We now have a Chief Intelligence Officer, Charlie Allen, who is virtually a legend in the intelligence community. [He] is empowered to coordinate and synchronize among all of our intelligence components, and every day I sit with him and we go over the intelligence that's come in. We talk about how we turn that intelligence into operational activity—how we use that intelligence to raise our defense profile at the border or to adjust what the Coast Guard is doing—and then I sit with the operators and we get that stuff done. So we have actually succeeded, at least as far as the intelligence piece of this department is concerned, in achieving, I think, exactly what the authors of the Department wanted, which is a single, unified intelligence capability that reaches across the operational components.

Other than spending more money on security, can you think of a concrete example of how the creation and existence of DHS has made us safer?

Let me give you an example from the border. In the past when we have dealt with the issue of security at the border, you had people who looked at the issue of putting more border patrol down, and you had other people who were looking at issues of how we detain people, but no one looked at the system comprehensively. We brought in everybody involved in dealing with the border, whether it be the air, sea, or land. That means Coast Guard, TSA, Customs and Border Protection, and [others]. We sat down and we looked comprehensively at all the things we need to do to raise security at the border at every level. And so all of our planning and all of our policies now are driven not by the Customs people looking only at their responsibility and writing plans that fit with that, but rather making sure our plans deal with all the areas where people might come in or threats might come in across our borders. So we now, for example, have Customs and Coast Guard synchronized in terms of how they deal with ships that come into our ports. This is something that is maybe not visible to the average American. But I can tell you that when I talk to the operators—because I get out quite a bit and talk to the Coast Guardsmen and the Customs officials—they express appreciation for the fact that they are now working together in a way that never was the case previously.

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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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