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)

Chertoff There’s a lot of talk in Washington, some by people who admire you personally, 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.

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.

Let me push you on that. 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 he needs to come to you—or at least he should—and then you need to go to the White House. There are just more layers.

[There’s a] great myth 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. 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.

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

[Almost] 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 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.

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.

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.”

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