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.

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.

The fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is coming up. Are we much better prepared to prevent or respond to another attack on that scale now than then?

Yes. We've got locked cockpit doors, much better airline security. Our port security is much better. We've got much better intelligence sharing than we had before. Our response capabilities are better. So we've dramatically elevated our defenses, and the proof of the pudding, to some extent, is the fact that we haven't had a successful attack here since then. And it's certainly not for want of Al-Qaeda wanting to carry out missions of terror, because we've seen it done all over the world.

But that's not to be complacent. As the arrests of would-be terrorists in Canada in early June make clear, you can get homegrown foreign-inspired terrorist groups. So we have to make sure not only that we're continuing to build up our defenses against a traditional al-Qaeda attack, but also that we're looking at how terrorism is morphing. We have to look at the onset of virtual terrorism—virtual jihad—where groups radicalize themselves over the Internet, train themselves over the Internet, and then go out and commit acts of terror. We may never see them travel to Pakistan or travel to other places where they go to training camps.

A leading expert on nuclear terrorism named Graham Allison, a former Defense official, said two years ago in a speech, "If the U.S. government and others just keep doing what we're doing, a nuclear 9/11 is more likely than not in the decade ahead." Too pessimistic?

I know and respect Graham. I agree with him that, for all the attention that gets paid publicly sometimes to things like rail security and people potentially blowing themselves up in shopping centers, from the standpoint of the long-term strategic effort at security, we have to really make sure we get focused on investing and preventing weapons of mass destruction from attacking. As bad as a conventional attack would be, a nuclear attack would be earth-shattering. The good news is that it's not something that's likely to happen next week, but it does require a sustained investment.

The one thing we did within a matter of a week or so after I came in was we set up what we call the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which was the designation of an element that would bring together and put into place a long-term strategy for detecting and ultimately protecting ourselves against a nuclear device coming into this country. That means putting into place research on next-level technology, but also plans and programs to deploy and operate nuclear detection equipment, not only at our borders and our ports, but even within the country. The vision here being that within the next decade we'll have a comprehensive approach to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons that begins overseas with attempting to make sure that no one gets their hands on the weapons and raising security levels in other countries [and] at home involves layers of protection at the border and within the country to detect radioactive material.

Now, this is not an overnight project. On the other hand, because as Graham says, we're looking at a threat that may be years if not decades out. We have the time if we don't waste it. One of the big legacy items for me in this Department is making sure I put into place a vigorous and fast effort to ramp up our response to the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Suppose, heaven forbid, that a radioactive dirty bomb goes off this afternoon in Washington or Boston or New York or wherever. Or suppose that you do receive credible intelligence that Al-Qaeda has smuggled an atomic bomb into one of those cities. It hasn't gone off yet. Not that one. Precisely, how would the DHS react? In particular, I've been told that very little has been done to prepare and rehearse detailed evacuation plans and the like.

Actually, one of the things we did in Topoff 3, which is one of the series of higher-level exercises that the government has run on an annual basis, is work on catastrophic scenarios and exercise—not only top officials but operational units—[and] on what we would do to respond to various threats. In some there have been rehearsals for potential nuclear detonations [and] for radiological detonations. Last year, the scenario involved a biological dispersal of a biological agent in New Jersey and Connecticut. So we have actually worked exercises through this and we do have planning in place.

It would, of course, not only be a DHS effort. If we had a radiological device that was dispersed, we would be coordinating with the Department of Defense, with the Department of Justice, with state and local officials, with Health and Human Services—because every one of these agencies would have a role to play. We would come together and manage this in a crisis group that would deploy all these resources based on the planning that's been done as quickly as possible. The threat of a nuclear device which hasn't been detonated presents again a similar need to manage the crisis, but not a focus on response as much as a focus on prevention. But this is the kind of threat that we are working on every day, as far as our planning is concerned and as far as our exercising is concerned, and as far as our grants and our training are concerned.

The EPA estimated a few years ago that more than a hundred privately-owned facilities in this country full of toxic chemicals like chlorine could each put a million people at risk if attacked. Also, more than seven hundred such facilities could put at least 100,000 people at risk. Economic experts say that, because the chance that any one of those facilities will be attacked is small, the owners' local governments lack adequate incentives to invest enough money in securing them. If they did, they would be at a competitive disadvantage with others who weren't making expenditures. Yet this administration seems to have disregarded this basic economic logic and has left security largely to the owners and the local governments. Doesn't that guarantee inadequate security?

I'm not sure I agree with the statistics about the number of plants that put certain populations at risk, but I do agree with the basic point that the danger you have in the chemical industry and some other industries is what they call the "freeloader effect": somebody figures they're hiding in the weeds, and everybody else is raising security, and therefore they don't have to. That's why the administration has come out to support chemical security legislation. The idea of the legislation would be to segment the chemical industry into various tiers depending on the riskiness of the chemicals. And at the highest tiers, we would set performance standards. We'd say, "Here are the things you have to be able to protect against and respond to," and then we would sanction those facilities that failed to live up to those performance standards and set into place a regime of ordering them and inspecting them to make sure that they're living up to them.

We've been working with Senators Collins and Lieberman, who are interested in that kind of legislation. Like with anything else, you get a little bit of disagreement on the details. But I am the first person to tell you, I think this year we owe the American people a chemical security bill that we can put into law, and then with that we can start the process of correcting exactly the kind of freeloader problem you've identified.

In allocating our resources, what's the gravest threat? In particular, let's take the threat of a pandemic. It might come from bird flu; it might come from biological terrorism. One reads frightening things about how a reasonably competent biologist in a little teeny lab with ordinary equipment could put together some horrible thing. Compare the bird flu-type-it just happens-to the terrorist type, and also nuclear terrorism. When you look at those nightmarish possibilities, how do you prioritize?

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.

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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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