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Homeland Security Chief Says U.S. Prepared for 2006 Storm Season

June 1, 2006 at 4:35 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, two different kinds of storms, and to our interview with the secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff.

Mr. Secretary, welcome.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, Homeland Security Secretary: Good to be here.

JIM LEHRER: Storm one: the announcement yesterday of funding grants for homeland security, anti-terrorism, the cuts to New York City and Washington, the two target cities for 9/11. Why?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, first of all, Jim, I don’t think it’s fair to describe them as “cuts.”

Take New York, for example. Last year, New York got $200 million. This year, we’re going to give them $124 million under this particular program. But last year was an artificially elevated number to make up from the very low grant the year before.

If you average out the prior three-year grants, you’re going to see this year is directly in line with what we’ve done over the last four years.

The larger point is this: We’ve invested over half a billion dollars in New York since this department was stood up. We’ve given New York more money, by more than double, than any other city in the country. We’ve put a substantial investment in security which has built the baseline up.

It’s always been understood that, as we fortify New York, we’ll begin to be able to spread the money to other places. So we’re not minimizing the risk to New York; we’re simply saying that we have built a lot of security and now we can afford to look to some communities that need some additional help.

JIM LEHRER: Then why is everybody in New York so upset, Mr. Secretary?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, that may be a question that’s a little bit beyond my capability of answering. I think people reacted to the initial comparison of this year’s number with last year’s number.

What they might not have realized is last year’s number was artificially high to make up from the prior year which was artificially low. So I’ve suggested let’s look at the average and you’ll see that this year’s grant is right in line with the average funding we’ve given New York, which has always been significantly higher than any other city in the country.

"We ranked everyone by risk"

Michael Chertoff
Secretary of Homeland Security
All the programs ought to be risk-based, but that doesn't mean that all the money will go to one or two cities. It means that we'll be able to do the kind of analysis that is tailored to each particular city.

JIM LEHRER: Peter King, Republican congressman from New York, who is, in fact, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee of the House, who certainly you would think would know all of this, what you just said, he said what you've done is indefensible. And he said, "I'm going to do everything I can to make them very sorry they made this decision."

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, you know, I think it points to a larger issue with grant-making, and homeland security, and other areas. Obviously, people feel strongly about their home communities and they tend to see their own risks to the exclusion of others. Our job is to balance.

And one of the things we did here was we put the maximum amount of money up front in those cities that were at the greater risk, but that doesn't mean that we keep rebuilding the same security over and over again.

As we improve security, we ought to have the ability to begin to manage the risk by looking to communities that haven't gotten the help. And if we make the process political, if we start to make it personal, we're actually going to frustrate good public policy, in terms of managing this money.

JIM LEHRER: Well, speaking of the political, Congresswoman Maloney from New York put out a report today comparing per capita expenditures from your budget by city, and she made the point that the per capita for New Yorkers was $2.78 a person compared to $14.83 for residents of Wyoming.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, part of this is an apple-and-oranges thing. And I have to say, I agree with some of the criticisms that some have made about that state program which allocates the grant money on a very rigid formula all across the country, with a certain percentage to each state. That is a different program that the one we've been talking about involving New York.

I agree with Congresswoman Maloney. All the programs ought to be risk-based, but that doesn't mean that all the money will go to one or two cities. It means that we'll be able to do the kind of analysis that is tailored to each particular city and each particular state as warranted by the risk.

JIM LEHRER: Were these decisions that were announced yesterday, the ones that's caused all the furor, risk-based?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: They were. And, actually, we did two things. First, we did rank everybody by risk, and New York comes out number one.

JIM LEHRER: Now, who's "we"? Who did this?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, we actually brought in state or local officials who were not involved in these particular decisions and asked them to form a peer review committee. And having formed that committee, first we took all of our information and our data, and we ranked the cities by risk. And New York did come out number one by a significant margin.

JIM LEHRER: Was Washington number two?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I don't know if it was number two, but it was well up there.

JIM LEHRER: It was right up there, yes.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: The second thing we did was said, OK, we've now identified the risk, but what do you want to do with the money? Because it's not enough to have risk; you've got to have a meaningful use for the money we give you.

And here where the fact that we've given over half a billion dollars to New York really plays a role, because New York has already made a lot of investments in the kinds of things which you'd expect to have as basic security.

So we had our state and local officials, our peer reviewers, look at the investment requests, and rank them, and allocate them based upon how useful they are in promoting the goals of homeland security. And that is how we made the final decision.

Move to a risk-based approach

Michael Chertoff
Secretary of Homeland Security
If you look at the average, you would see the money New York got this year was in line with the average across the prior three years.

JIM LEHRER: Well, several of the stories this morning made the point that while New York -- you've just explained what the figures are, but it's less money than they got last year, where there were huge raises for, like, Sacramento, California, Louisville, Kentucky.

Does that mean that there's a new risk for Louisville, Kentucky, and Sacramento, California, compared to New York? Explain what that means?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: What it means is that a lot of communities were working from a very low base. They either had very small grants the prior year or even no grants.

And so, obviously, if you give them a portion of money, even if it's not that large, it is a significant increase. New York was working from a very large base.

And one of the oddities about this particular year is a lot of people wanted to compare this year with last year, but last year was abnormally high compared to the year before. So that's why I said, if you look at the average, you would see the money New York got this year was in line with the average across the prior three years and substantially more, by a country mile, than the money given to any other city.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you mentioned you want to keep politics out of this. But, of course, the Wyoming figure that I mentioned, immediately everybody says, "Oh, where is the vice president from? He's from Wyoming." There are no terrorist threats toward Wyoming. Why are they getting a larger amount of money per capita than New York, if not politics?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, I mean, Congress did originally set the formula for the state grants, and they guaranteed every state a minimum formula. So that was a congressional decision.

JIM LEHRER: That was a pure pork decision?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, let's just -- I'll let you characterize it as pork or not...

JIM LEHRER: All right, OK, all right.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: ... but that was a decision made by the Congress directly.

JIM LEHRER: Not based on risk?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Correct. That was based on their view that every state ought to have a little bit of money guaranteed.

The urban program and the other programs that we've operated have been risk-based, and we've always advocated to move all of the programs to a risk-based approach. And that, of course, would eliminate some of the anomalies that people point out when they criticize the comparison on a per capita basis.

JIM LEHRER: So you're going to change this?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, I don't have the ability to change the law.

JIM LEHRER: Have you asked Congress to change the law?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Last year, there was a movement for that. Actually, Representative King was one of the leaders in this, to eliminate the state minimums.

We supported an elimination or reduction of state minimums; that was not successful in Congress. We want to continue to work with Congress to reduce those minimums so there's more money available to do based on risk.

JIM LEHRER: Are you satisfied with this list that came out yesterday? Are you making any revisions as a result or considering revisions as a result of the storm that some of these things have stirred up?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, you know, what I've said in the past remains true, is if there is a factual issue -- a significant one, not a trivial one -- that people bring to our attention that changes the mix a little bit, we're willing to pay attention.

But I think the worst thing for me to do would be to say, "Oh, wow, there is a firestorm. I got criticized; people called me names. Let me revise the list so that nobody criticizes me."

I mean, that would be to take this program and make it a hostage to political fortune. I am committed to not doing that.

We have a program that has gotten better and more precise each year. This peer review takes it out of the hands of the politicians. I myself do not make any individual decision about what particular community gets a grant; I only look at the general approach and determine whether I agree with it, and, in this case, I did.

JIM LEHRER: You're satisfied that New York, and Washington, and the other major risk cities did not get shortchanged?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I think they got a very fair shake.

JIM LEHRER: And do you take seriously Congressman King's threat that he's going to do something to you all for doing this?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: You know, I hope that everybody takes a deep breath. There are a hundred members of the Senate, 435 members of Congress. In any array of grants, someone's going to win and someone's going to lose.

There's a lot of committee chairmen; there are a lot of appropriators. If we ever start down the road of people trying to punish a department because they didn't like a grant, we'd be forced to deal with these grants, what they had to do with the BRAC, with the base closing process, which is to take it and put it in the hands of an independent body.

And I have to tell you, it's a defeat for the political system if we can't manage our grant program in a way that says, even when people are disappointed, as long as they understand what the process is, they are willing to abide by the decision and come back and make an argument on the merits.

If the way we deal with it is by getting angry or by trying to exert political pressure, I think we're doing a disservice to the American people.

Are we ready for hurricane season?

Michael Chertoff
Secretary of Homeland Security
All across the country, and particularly in the Gulf which is vulnerable this year, we've been shoulder to shoulder with state and local officials working to make sure we are planning together.

JIM LEHRER: Second storm, Mr. Secretary, and that, of course, is hurricane season began today. How would you describe your department's readiness, as we speak?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: You know, we are much readier than last year and much readier than in any prior year. We have finally built a set of 21st-century tools, including computer tracking of commodities, better communication...

JIM LEHRER: What is that, computer what?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Tracking of commodities.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, I see.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Ability to track supplies from the warehouse down to the place we're sending them, better communications equipment. We've built tools that we never had before.

But beyond that, we have sat down with local communities and state officials, and we have really worked on a good set of plans. Planning is a very important part of being able to respond.

And all across the country, and particularly in the Gulf which is vulnerable this year, we've been shoulder to shoulder with state and local officials working to make sure we are planning together.

JIM LEHRER: What's your level of confidence that we're not going to have another Katrina?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, I can't tell you what the storms this year will look like.

JIM LEHRER: I don't mean the velocity of the storm; I mean all of the things that went wrong as a result of that storm.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I'm quite sure we're not going to have that kind of a result or another Katrina, from the standpoint of response.


MICHAEL CHERTOFF: That's not to say I'm free from anxiety about hurricane season. I think we've got a particular challenge this year on the Gulf Coast with hurricane fatigue.

There are about 70,000 trailers in Louisiana. I've seen them. They're on concrete blocks. They will not stand up even to a low-level hurricane. People are going to have to evacuate when their local officials make the decision, even in a comparatively low hurricane, that people have to leave.

I'm worried that, after two or three evacuations, people may get tired. My message is: You've got to listen to your local officials. They have the authority and responsibility; they're going to be looking out for your best interest. It's better to be safe and inconvenienced than to be sorry if, in fact, your trailer gets impacted.

JIM LEHRER: You personally, and your department, and people who worked under you caught much, much heat as a result of what happened last year. What are you personally, as head of homeland security, going to do differently this season than you did last?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, first of all, I began well in advance of the season. You know, I was six months on the job last year when the hurricane hit. And having now gone through an intense preparation period, in terms of planning and lining up supplies, I realize how much of what you do in hurricane season depends on what you did before hurricane season.

It's like a football team. You know, the preparation pre-season is what determines how you perform during the season. So we put that work in, and I've been personally engaged.

I went down earlier this week to kick the tires, literally, on the bus and to walk through the Orleans plan. I don't want to substitute my judgment for the operators. We've brought some very skilled people in; we've got them down to the Gulf. They're working as a team with state and local officials, but I will be very much personally focused to make sure that my people are doing what they have to do.

"We have much more than last year"

Michael Chertoff
Secretary of Homeland Security
I obviously don't have the authority as a local official or state official to order evacuations or to do the things that local and state officials do. They're going to have to take that responsibility.

JIM LEHRER: Bottom line, Mr. Secretary, somebody listening to us talking right now, and they want to know how much responsibility are you taking for what may or may not happen, in terms of the response, to any bad hurricane that comes?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I'm certainly taking responsibility for my department, what we do, what we bring to the table. I obviously don't have the authority as a local official or state official to order evacuations or to do the things that local and state officials do. They're going to have to take that responsibility.

What I can do is work with them to help them do what they have to do and to exercise their authority.

JIM LEHRER: But all the things that you feel that you have the authority to do and the responsibility to do, you're prepared to do it and accept responsibility if they go wrong?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Right. For things that I have authority to do and that are my mission, I will discharge. Those things I don't have authority for, I will work with those who have the authority to make sure that they can discharge their responsibility.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see your principal responsibility -- just so people get a framework here -- is, yes, to prepare, but then, if the storm hits, is to reduce calamity, to reduce injury, reduce damage, and all of that sort -- is that what you see as your number-one responsibility?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: In the normal course, in a normal hurricane, local and state officials are going to take the responsibility and have the authority to order the evacuation and get people out. We're going to be there to help them with the planning, with, in some cases, buses and transportation, if necessary.

JIM LEHRER: You're prepared to provide those?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Correct. And we have that. We've got much more than we had last year, and we've got the ability to track where it is and make sure it gets where it's supposed to be.

Now, if you had a truly extraordinary event, an incapacitation of state and local government, then we might have to take a more direct role. And part of the planning we've done this year is we've gotten the Defense Department very closely tied with us so that the capabilities that they can bring to the table are ones that we've identified, we've prepared -- what we call mission assignments -- so we can call on them, and we could deploy those much more quickly than last year.

JIM LEHRER: You have the authority to call the Defense Department and say, "I need 30,000 soldiers in New Orleans tomorrow?"

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Not quite. What I have the ability to do is, based on our agreement, to say, "I want to trigger the assignments that we've agreed upon previously." And then the Department of Defense will honor that, and they will provide, whether it be supplies or soldiers or whatever, they will supply that.

Now, I do want to be careful, Jim, to point out that, when it comes to supplying security, there are a series of very complicated legal issues and some things only the president can do: invoking the Insurrection Act and actually federalizing troops.

That's really in exceptional circumstances, and that's a presidential power. But, in terms of these mission assignments, we have these agreed upon and I'm confident the Defense Department will act on them.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Good to be here.