Washington September 2006

Catastrophe Management

Michael Chertoff tells Atlantic contributor Stuart Taylor Jr. what it’s like to run the Department of Homeland Security. An edited transcript. (For the full transcript, click here)

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.”

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.

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. 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 [without ever traveling to foreign training camps], and then go out and commit acts of terror.

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.

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.

Photograph by Richard A. Bloom/National Journal

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Stuart Taylor Jr. is a National Journal columnist and a Newsweek contributor.

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