Catastrophe Management

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

I prioritize nuclear and biological events at the top of the heap. And radiological and chemical close behind because they have the largest capacity to affect the largest number of people and to really be earth-shattering in terms of the impact on the United States. That's not to say we don't also look at bombings in subways and bombings in supermarkets and shopping malls, but as bad as those things are, they are the kinds of threats we have dealt with previously and we are well-equipped to deal with. The catastrophic event is the kind that has never happened before and that could really be just transformative in its disastrous effect. So I think that, from a federal standpoint in particular, where we add real value is in developing the tools to prevent, protect against, and respond to those catastrophic events. We still want to be mindful of the less catastrophic and work across the board to raise the level of terrorism [preparedness], but nuclear and biological are, to me, at the top of the heap in terms of consequence.

There's a lot of talk of building walls or fences along all two thousand miles of the Mexican border. Does this make sense? Is there a realistic hope for greatly reducing the number of poor Mexicans who enter this country by fortifying the border?

First of all, I think that, as the President said, fortifying the border, while a necessary ingredient, is not a sufficient ingredient of a strategy to protect the border. You've also got to deal with interior enforcement, and you've got to create a path for that tremendous number of people who come to work to fill jobs that apparently can't be filled otherwise. You've got to create a path that will bring them into the regulatory process and let us know who they are and then take away some of that pressure at the border. But even at the border itself, you have to address the tactics to the terrain.

The fact of the matter is, what we care about is how quickly someone can cross the border and get to some place in the country from which they can then hop on a bus or hop on a train and get into the interior. In areas that are urban, therefore, fencing really does make sense because it slows them up just enough, even the five minutes it takes to get over the fence, for our border patrol to come and apprehend them. But when you get to the desert, fencing is a waste because we're not going to put large numbers of border patrol sitting in the middle of the desert right up to a fence, and therefore the fence doesn't really impede people from crossing the border. So that's a strategy that's much more technologically-based with sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles. We've opted for what I call a "smart fence," which is the right blend of a physical fence and a virtual fence that really leverages the border patrol tactically in the way that's most efficient.

I think the President has proposed adding six thousand people to the border patrol over the next four years or so, up to seventeen thousand. But let me ask you this: the border patrol more than doubled its number of agents from 1995 until last year—it went from over five thousand to over eleven thousand—yet during the same period, the number of people caught illegally crossing our borders went down, from 1.3 million to 1.2 million. Is this strategy working?

Yes, because what it reflects is this: there were so few border patrol in pre-2000 that people literally streamed across the border in the urban areas, and it was easy to apprehend a lot of them because it was low-hanging fruit, or a lot of them got away. What has happened now is, as we've increased the protection in the urban areas, we see much more of the traffic coming across the desert. The good news is that this reduces the total number coming across; the bad news is that it's much harder to apprehend them because we're not patrolling in a very comparatively inhospitable area of the country. So, actually, if you look at the most recent statistics I've seen, the number of people who actually got into the country from 2000 to 2005 was less than the number that came in from '95 to 2000.

We're in hurricane season now, and The Washington Post had some fun at your expense in a recent article. They took a fact sheet, a press release that the Department put out in May, and at the top of the list is that we've dramatically increased the amount of relief supplies. And then The Washington Post says, Aha! Michael Chertoff blames shortages in Katrina on flooded roads, declaring that, "the limiting factor here has not been that we don't have enough supplies." So I guess their implication is that you've solved the non-problem and you still haven't solved the real problem.

That criticism is representative of two classic mistakes that critics sometimes make. First of all, it assumes that all we want to do is respond to the exact problem that happened last year and that we don't want to think about any other problem. Second, it forgets the fact that we didn't have only one hurricane last year; we had several hurricanes, and although it is true that in Katrina there was a huge problem actually getting supplies into the area because of blocked roads and damage to measures of transportation, in Wilma, where we didn't have that issue, we did have supply problems. Therefore, what we're trying to do is react not only to Katrina, but to the whole spectrum of things that we might face this hurricane season.

Here's another tweak in The Washington Post about the same press release. The release says an experienced and capable leadership team has been named for FEMA. And The Washington Post observes, "As of March, 27% of FEMA's jobs were vacant and its director, chief operating officer, its four division directors, and four of its ten regional directors were serving in a temporary capacity. President Bush tapped acting director David Paulison to keep the job only after several other candidates turned it down."

There you're giving me a softball because the critical word in that criticism is "as of March." But as we made clear in May, which, as you know, follows March, we now have a Director of Operations. All of the divisions except for one are filled on a permanent basis, and we've now reduced the vacancy rate below 15%. So we've actually made an enormous amount of progress. An enormous amount of progress was made between March and May.

You took this job to fight terrorism, not hurricanes. When Katrina hit, did you feel blindsided—like nature had played a joke on you?

I can tell you that every time I've taken a job in the government, what I thought would be the challenge has turned out not to be the real challenge. But Katrina has been a lesson not only in how to react to a natural disaster, but also in how to react to a man-made disaster. What's emerged recently is that the real cause of what happened in Katrina was not just the hurricane itself, but it was the apparently structural problems in the levees. Those levees could have gone on their own without a natural disaster.

So what we've learned about emergency operations and evacuation out of Katrina is going to yield dividends across the board in terms of preparedness for terror. Likewise, avian flu, which would be a natural disaster, is teaching us things about how to react to a biological incident that would be very relevant if someone were to attack us using biological means. There's real cross-fertilization here, which is one of the reasons why running the department as a unified whole actually winds up adding to our security level.

The House Government Reform Committee a few months ago had an unkind observation about your response to Katrina. It said, "Secretary Chertoff exercised his responsibilities late, ineffectively, or not at all." Where did they ever get that idea?

I think there was a fair amount of discussion about when I had authorized an incident of national significance to be triggered. My reading of the national response plan was that the President's declaration triggered it automatically. Others read the plan differently. At this point, my solution to this is not to re-argue whether plans are properly read my way or someone else's way. It's to re-write the plans so that they're unambiguous and clear, and we've done that and gotten it over with.

Could anyone else in this job have handled Katrina better than you did?

Everybody brings unique strengths, weaknesses, and personality characteristics to a job. I can't judge for myself whether someone else has a different mix that would have worked better or worse. What I can tell you is that everybody in the top leadership of the department, including myself, now has completed perhaps the most in-depth crash course in catastrophe management—not disaster management, but catastrophe management—of anybody in the country. We've been through an extraordinary experience and have gained some real learning from that.

A lot of experts—Judge Richard Posner, for one, has written books on this—[and] some members of the Intelligence Committees argue that this country needs an agency devoted exclusively to collecting domestic intelligence, such as the United Kingdom's MI5. These experts say that FBI agents will never be very good at collecting intelligence because they're focused on arrests and convictions, and that's a totally different function. You have a lot of experience with the FBI. Do you agree?

I'm friendly with Dick Posner, but I disagree with him on this. The Bureau, first of all, has made tremendous strides in transforming its culture. But I think also some of what they bring to the table, in terms of their experience making criminal cases, actually gives them a focus in terms of how they deal with intelligence that's very helpful. It reminds us that the purpose of the intelligence at the end of the day is to disrupt the enemy operation; it's not really to collect intelligence. So I think, actually, that they're enhanced by their bringing the criminal tools and the intelligence tools into one agency. MI5, which I have a lot of respect for, is also not flawless, as witness July 7th of last year.

In the summer of 2004 when you were still a judge, you wrote this in an op-ed: Congress and the Executive "need to sit down and haggle over differences, then write the laws that will balance our new national security needs with our civil libertarian values. That process of debate and compromise builds the public support that is indispensable to a long-term strategy for coping with terrorism." You seem to be saying that the President ought to go to Congress and say: we've got the Patriot Act; we need some other new legislation—how do we deal with detention and interrogation and all of that. He doesn't seem to have taken your advice, has he?

I do know that the President and Congress have worked on some elements of this. We've seen Senators McCain's legislation, and I think there are other things in the works. But I continue to believe that, at the end of this process, we need to have a set of rules that everybody agrees on about how we're going to deal with issues like incapacitating people so they don't commit acts of terror. How do we deal with the issue of detainees [and] opportunities they have to challenge their detention? These things are not fully worked out, but I do think that there's been more work put into them than was the case in 2004.

There were a lot of questions in late May about why you reduced DHS grants to New York City and Washington by 40% while shifting, say, to places like Louisville and Milwaukee, which seem less likely to be terrorist targets. I have a more general question: is the total of 713 million dollars a year that DHS has for grants to local and state governments anywhere near enough to protect our critical infrastructure? After all, the Defense Department spent seven times that much—five billion a year—to protect its own facilities in the United States alone, and that covers a lot less ground than what you have to take care of.

Let me answer both parts of the question. As far as the first is concerned, I think that to describe it as a 40% cut is to really take it out of context. If you look at the three prior years, New York got basically the same percentage of the total pie, which was a little less than one-fifth, and totaled up to over five hundred million dollars. So I think by any measure, New York has gotten far and away the largest amount of money for its security needs.

The larger question is, what is our funding strategy for grants for state and local governments? I think the answer is that these are meant to be capital investments in security. We should expect that, on the upside, we're going to surge money into state and local government to give them assistance in terms of building some of the capabilities they need to have to be prepared for terrorism. But what it's not meant to be is a permanent subsidy for operating expenses where the federal government's going to start, for example, paying for a certain percentage of police every year or a certain percentage of firefighters every year on the theory that they might be used to deal with terrorism. In the end, once we've gotten state and local governments up to a higher level of security, it is ultimately their issue to own on a state and local level.

We're the federal government bringing in resources, we add value—for example, technology that we can't reasonably expect state and locals to develop and fund. That should be a continuing obligation, our protection of things on a regional and national basis. Weapons of mass destruction—focusing on getting states and locals detection equipment and training on how to deal with potential chemical, nuclear, biological attacks. These are the kinds of things I think that ultimately will be the sustained federal contribution to state and locals. The grant money for building state and locals' own equipment is a kind of upfront investment, and I would assume that, over the years to come, you will see that amount begin to stabilize as we add more of our federal homeland security dollars into these higher consequence, higher technology solutions to deal with what you identified earlier as the real nightmare scenario—the nuclear attack, the biological attack, the very serious chemical attack.

Is pork barrel spending driving you nuts in this area?

You know, there are some elements of the funding programs that spread the money without regard to risk that I think, frankly, should be changed to be more risk-driven. I think, on the other end of the scale, people who criticize us for putting money in, let's say, Milwaukee or Omaha or Atlanta are a little short-sighted if they assume that just because we've had attacks on New York and Washington, those are the only places we're going to have attacks. I can tell you that, again, looking back to the period of late May and early June with these Canadian arrests, you see the FBI has acknowledged that there was a connection between that group and a group in Atlanta. I would hate to be in a situation where we said that all the money is going to go where the attacks were, and an attack comes to a new place, and then we haven't done anything to protect it. In this area, as in a lot of other areas, there's the fallacy of not only "let's respond to what happened in the past," but "let's only respond to that"—"we had attacks in New York and Washington, [so] that's all we ought to be focused on."

There's a great history lesson here. In the 1930s, the French built the Maginot Line, which was a perfect response to what the Germans did during World War I. What the Germans did was they went around it in World War II, and they conquered France in thirty days. We're not going to build a Maginot Line. We're going to put money into New York and Washington, which continue to be the highest-risk cities, but we've got to make sure that we've covered the other points of entry into this country.

Presented by

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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