|NEWSMAKER: MICHAEL CHERTOFF|
July 13, 2005
Secretary of Homeland Security
Michael Chertoff announced Wednesday a six-point agenda for the reorganization
of the Homeland Security Department, emphasizing better preparation
for catastrophes, security and transportation.
JIM LEHRER: And now, to our Newsmaker interview with Michael Chertoff, secretary of the U.S. Homeland Security Department. Mr. Secretary, welcome.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Good to be here.
|Improving mass transit security|
JIM LEHRER: It now appears to be that the London bombings were committed by four Britain-born suicide bombers. Does that change the threat landscape in this country at all in your judgment?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, I don't think it does directly. We've always known obviously that there are the possibility of sleeper cells and that could involve people who came in from overseas or people born in the United States who went overseas and trained.
So the basic problem remains the same. We need to be able to identify those who are a threat, intercept them before the fuse is lit and then prepare ourselves, if there is an event, to respond in an appropriate manner.
JIM LEHRER: But what about the idea of suicide bombers, then Britain, and does that open up possibilities here that had not been considered before?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, of course, we always want to be mindful about people who are ideologically motivated to become suicide bombers. I think -- we tend to think of the issue as people who are jihadist coming in from overseas that we can intercept at the borders.
Another dimension of the problem is those who are here who become radicalized; they may be American citizens; they may be people who came at an early age. But I don't want to suggest that we have information that there is a large pool of those people here.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. But does what happened in Britain open up a renewed effort to look at this possibility that may not have been looked at so intensely before?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I think we have actually been looking at this possibility intently. I mean, over the years we've addressed cases involving sleeper cells. We've often brought cases going back several years ago in North Virginia and the Pacific Northwest.
And in many instances, in fact, there was press criticism saying, well, these people haven't done anything operational. But I think the lesson here is if you wait until people become operational, you are waiting too long. You have got to look to intercept people who are potentially terrorists, and if you have a legal basis to do so, you've got to move against them.
JIM LEHRER: In a more general way today, the head of the London subway system said today, "There isn't the technology or the technique to deal with this type of attack." Do you agree with him in general?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, what's clear, Jim, is that you can't do at subway stations what you do at the airport; you can't pass people through a magnetometer. We've got to design our system to recognize the essential fluid character of our public transportation.
Again, that means in part having a good intelligence system to identify threats before they show up on the scene. There are things we do with detection, particularly as it relates to biological threats which are totally catastrophic in character.
We have bio-sensing devices in a lot of train stations now and we're moving to get those --
JIM LEHRER: What can they pick up?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: They basically check the ambient air and they have filters and the filter captures even very, very small biological particles. We can then remove the filters and test them, and that is an early warning sign of biological agents.
But what we need to though is to move to the next generation, which does real time sampling and testing, and that's the kind of thing we need to build in the subways and in the train stations to deal with the most catastrophic types of threats.
JIM LEHRER: But in a more particular way related to London, if somebody wanted to go into a transit system vehicle here in the United States, there's no technology that could pick that up, right, if it was carrying a bomb of some kind or either intending to blow himself up or just to put it under a seat or something, right?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, there is no magic bullet, you're absolutely right. Now, we do use dogs, for example, which have a real capability of smelling explosives traces and there are people working on technology. But there is no single system that exists that allows us to guarantee people are not going to get on a train with explosives.
JIM LEHRER: Now, you raised the terror threat over the weekend on several transit systems here in the United States. Are they still in effect?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: We're still at orange, but just in mass transit. And it's something we look at carefully. We speak to the transit systems.
I want to be clear that we did it not because of any specific evidence of an imminent threat but because in looking at the tactics the terrorists have traditionally used, recognizing that they often follow one attack with a second wave or a coordinated attack, it seemed prudent to raise the level, get a higher level of preparedness in our systems but to keep it narrow and focused to the transit systems themselves.
|Potential color code changes|
JIM LEHRER: I noticed in your reorganization plan that you announced today, you kept -- you didn't mention the color code system, in other words, in terms of changing it. Are you satisfied that that works?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, we actually did mention that we're looking
at this and we're currently examining the system to see whether it can
JIM LEHRER: As you know, before you took office, this was the subject of much criticism and much joking even that people didn't though what to do and it became a subject of ridicule. After having been in office now since March, and you've looked at it, do you think it deserves the ridicule it has gotten?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I think, Jim, it does two things. First, it does warn people who are part of a network who have responsibility, be it in the transit system or in other parts of our government or the private sector, that they need to raise their level to a predetermined readiness state. I think that is an important thing to do because we need to move quickly when we're concerned about a threat.
is a second dimension, which is the public warning aspect. On the one
hand, we want to advise people when there is something going on because
they're going to see evidence all around; they're going to see more
dogs and more police.
JIM LEHRER: But, as we speak now, you do not anticipate changing this system?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: As I say, we are looking at it.
JIM LEHRER: Looking at it.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I'm not anticipating a wholesale change, but I don't think we've put down any prescriptions as to, you know, what you can look at and what you can't look at. I think we're going to want to talk about this with all the stakeholders and very soon come up with a -- perhaps a proposal.
JIM LEHRER: Your plan that you announced today, it's had many parts to it, and we don't have time to go into all the parts. But tell me what you think is the most important change that you are making as secretary of homeland security.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I think what we are trying to get a department-wide focus that lets us look at what our missions are, basic, fundamental missions, and see whether we can drive to accomplish those missions.
What are the things people are rightly concerned about? They're concerned about control of our borders. We need to make sure that we can develop and implement a strategic plan that addresses the border soup to nuts, both from the apprehension of people who are illegal migrants all the way through removal. We need to do that with preparedness.
You know, a possibility of a weapon of mass destruction is still a very real possibility, and we need to make sure that we are doing everything we can to detect and intercept it and if we were to have, for example, a biological incident, like the anthrax event of a couple of years ago, we need to have a disciplined and effective response. I think these are the kinds of tasks which are complicated, require a unified approach.
And what we've done today is we've set some goals about things we want to accomplish. We've set an agenda and then we've put some mechanisms in place that will allow us to drive to complete those goals and achieve that agenda in a relatively short period of time.
JIM LEHRER: One specific is a creation of a new job called intelligence director to put all the intelligence together under one place. Why was that necessary?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, you know, we actually have a number of intelligence components in the department. And some of them do tactical things like they'll tell the Border Patrol, or Customs, if there's a new type of fraudulent passport.
But in addition to doing that, we capture a lot of information at the border: Patterns of people coming in, types of counterfeit documents. And when you stand back and you look at that strategically, sometimes that can tell you an awful lot about threats to the country that are not evident to the components that are actually working on the ground.
I want to make sure we're capturing that; I want to make sure we're fusing it and I also want to make sure we are capable of transmitting it to our partners in the intelligence community and in state and local government.
|Responding to criticism|
JIM LEHRER: There are a couple of things that your department has been criticized for going into this reorganization.
One is -- Senator Byrd of West Virginia being a leader of the critics on this -- that an awful lot of money has been allocated for instance for firefighters, for upgrading security in transit, and yet your department has taken months and months and months to implement the procedures that local governments and state governments and others can apply for this.
Have you fixed that? Are you going fix that?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, we are in the process of fixing it. You know, early on there was criticism with respect to port grants because people were saying, look, we're granting money to ports that really don't face as serious a threat as some other ports.
So rather than keep shoveling the money out in a way that people, you know, perhaps accurately perceived was not as well disciplined as it should be, we said let's take a pause, let's do an analytical study of what the real hierarchy threats are. What are the ports with the greatest consequence and vulnerability and then let's allocate the grants in that disciplined fashion.
And actually we've done that now. We are getting grants -- applications coming in under a new much more sophisticated system of analysis about threat, vulnerability and consequence.
Sometimes it's good to pause for a moment, take stock and make sure we are not wasting money rather than continue to push it out in way that may not be the most effective.
JIM LEHRER: You're satisfied now that that's been fixed, though?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I am satisfied we are fixing it.
JIM LEHRER: You are fixing it?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: But I also recognize that, you know, we're going
to keep getting better at refining what the threats are, refining what
the consequences are. We've got some powerful tools. We have a lot more
experience, and, you know, there's always a time lag with these stories.
You read a story now about things that were the case six months ago
but we're always working to improve.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: You know, the normal thing to do is you come and you talk to the various components. You ask what they're doing; what they want to do. But when I came in and looked at the department, I said look, this has been around two years, it's a very new department. We have some fundamental missions. We have to make sure we're keeping our eye on the ball, meaning producing results for the American people in terms of increased security.
And I didn't want to get trapped in every component's own set of tasks. I wanted to be able to stand back and look at what the whole mission is and make sure we are getting there and if we are not getting there, figure out what the gaps are without worrying about people's turf issues or jurisdictional issues.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of turf issues, did it occur to you at any other time as you were looking at this, that, for instance, this department that you are running brought in 180,000 employees from 22 different agencies with different kind of mission, as well as bureaucratic systems all trying to put -- did it occur to you at any time, oh, my goodness, this isn't going to work; the whole thing should be broken up into different parts and not try to be coordinated as one big agency?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: No. I think the concept is a good concept. It's to take all of the pieces that have responsibility for protecting the homeland and put them in a place which is unified and see if you can make them work together.
What the review showed is that, you know, a lot of work was done but there was some more work that needed to be done. I think what we've suggested we're going to do today is precisely what we need -- to put a mechanism in place to make it work as one.
If we can make that happen, we are going to give the American people the vision I think that Congress had and the president had when they launched this department.
JIM LEHRER: Are you convinced it can be done?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I'm convinced it can be done; and we have to do it because the mission is too important to abandon or throw up our hands about.
|Recipe to success|
JIM LEHRER: Are there still people who have come from these various agencies resisting a unified culture?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: You know, I think there are legacy feelings. I understand there is pride in the preexisting organizations. I don't want to step on that. I think it is important to recognize the value of the past but we have to become one organization.
And the only way to do it -- the way to do it is to make people focus on the fact that we have to produce a result and that result matters to our families; it matters to our friends; it matters to our country.
When you focus on the result, then you realize your own jurisdictional and kind of turf issues really have to be put on one side and you have got to work together and the gratification comes when you see that we've actually achieved something important.
JIM LEHRER: When you looked at it, and now as a result of this review, how would you judge our vulnerabilities? What are our most serious vulnerabilities as a nation from outside or even inside terrorist threats and others?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: You know, we're safer now than we were before 9/11 and we're safer than we were last year. And we continue to get safer. I think that vulnerabilities are of two types.
I think that there is, of course, the possibility of a weapon of mass effect. I don't think that that's likely to happen in the near future but I do think that, based on the anthrax episode of a couple years ago, the potential consequences of something like that are so significant we really have to focus on those issues quickly.
JIM LEHRER: Is that number one priority for you?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: To me, catastrophic is really a top priority. The second or what I would call low-signature type of terrorist attacks, the single terrorist who goes in with a gun or a hand grenade and commits a terrorist attack, frankly that kind of thing has been around for a long time. I mean, crime, in some ways, has been around for a long time.
Those are going to be tough to deal with because they require very, very precise and low-level type of response. And, frankly, a lot of the responsibility is going to rest with our state and local partners and with private infrastructure.
The key is to apply the right resources to the right level of threat and to recognize this is not only a federal responsibility; state and local government has to deal with it and private -- the private sector, businesses that have investments, that have responsibilities, each of us as individuals has to take some responsibility for security in our own lives and in the lives of those who depend upon us.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, finally, many people suggested when Tom Ridge took the job to begin with and then when you replaced him that this is a job that is extremely difficulty to ever get on top of, all of these things you have been talking about, that we've been talking about together and you have to deal with every day. Do you feel on top of this situation?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: You know, I have a terrific team and we are bringing more people on all the time. This is a job we have to do. I believe, like any other manmade organization, if we are disciplined about it and we think carefully about what we need to do, we can make the organization work.
And the only thing I can tell you is this: When I go around to talk to people, everybody in this country wants this department to work, nobody more than the employees. And I think that spirit and some discipline and energy and, frankly, a little bit of impatience because I am impatient to get this job done, seems to me to be a recipe that I think will get us moving even further on the path to what we want to achieve.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, thank you.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Great. Thanks a lot, Jim.