KWAME HOLMAN: It must have been a promising sign for the president to see Michael Chertoff, his nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security, seated at his confirmation hearing this morning, flanked by his home state senators, Frank Lautenberg and Jon Corzine, both Democrats.
SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG: I thank you because we're so pleased that President Bush has nominated a kind of hometown fellow from New Jersey.
KWAME HOLMAN: Chertoff is well-known to most senators. He was the Republicans' special counsel during the Senate's Whitewater investigation of President Clinton. He's a former federal prosecutor, and ran the Justice Department's criminal division during the first few years of the Bush administration.
Two years ago, the president gave him a lifetime judicial appointment on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
SEN. JON CORZINE: And I think the idea that he has demonstrated, as others have mentioned, that he's prepared to give up a lifetime appointment to take on a job that will come with lots of rocks and stones and bows and arrows from all of us is a statement to how committed he is to public service.
KWAME HOLMAN: And when questioning began, the first one, asked by committee chairman Susan Collins, was about the career choice Chertoff had made.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Why are you willing to give up your very secure position to take on such an extraordinarily difficult job?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: The call to serve in helping to protect America was the one call I could not decline. And I have to say, since having begun the process with the announcement by the president of his intent to nominate me, I have been privileged as I travel back and forth from home to Washington, to have people come up to me and express how much they care about the work of the Department and how important it is to them.
I think they have a sense of ownership unlike any I've ever experienced, and that has redoubled my sense that it was right for me, if I can add value and make a contribution, to put my personal considerations aside and to accept this challenge.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Well, Judge, speaking as one senator, I'm very impressed with your commitment and your willingness to make that sacrifice for your country, and I think it reflects a deep commitment to public service for which I salute you.
KWAME HOLMAN: The tone set in that exchange remained throughout the hearing. It wasn't in the least contentious, as were the hearings for Secretary of State Rice and Attorney General nominee Gonzales. Most of the questions focused on actions the Department of Homeland Security might take to better protect America. Virginia's John Warner:
SEN. JOHN WARNER: I think you've got to face up to this question of the national ID card and what this nation should do about it. Have you got some views that you would share with us this morning on that tough issue?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, I think what I've observed certainly as a citizen over the years my own experience has been that the driver's license has become in many respects the standard identifying document. In fact, I remember trying to get into -- I won't even mention the agencies, but certain buildings using my credentials and people saying, "No, I want to see your driver's license instead."
That suggests that the reality is at a minimum we need to make sure that driver's licenses are reliable. There's no, it seems to me, argument in having unreliable licenses. I certainly look forward to working on that. As to the larger issue, because I know it's complicated, it's something I'd certainly want to study and consider very carefully.
KWAME HOLMAN: Norm Coleman relayed some complaints he said he heard from first-responders back home in Minnesota.
SEN. NORM COLEMAN: I have had... our office had conversation, for instance, with the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, Captain Brian Johnson, who from his perspective, still feels that the lines of communication between the sheriff's office and homeland security and local officials need improvement.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: And I agree with you, Senator. This is an area where we can't use a cookie cutter. Every state is different. I mean, there are geographic issues, as you point out, that certainly cry out as a matter of common sense for treatment that's different from treating two cities that are, you know, 500 miles apart.
I don't know why we -- why the Department sometimes misses that. As I said, people make mistakes. What I do want to put into place is a strong system of feedback so that before we reach a final decision, if we're doing something silly, we hear about it.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman wanted to know of Chertoff's plans for protecting the nation's chemical plants against possible terrorist attacks.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Last week, Richard Faulkenrath, former homeland security adviser to President Bush, told the committee we've done essentially nothing in this area and made no material reduction in the inherent insecurity of our chemical sector.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I do agree that this is an area of potential significant risk. And I think we need to be able, the federal government needs to be able to use a whole range of tools to bring the industry up to an appropriate standard. At a minimum, we have to give them -- and I know there are surveys and guidance that we can give them of things they can do on their own.
I think there are incentives we ought to consider, including working with the insurance industry. My experience with Y2K was a lot of industry woke up when the insurance people started to talk about what they were prepared to insure or not insure.
But also I understand the president has indicated that he supports, if necessary, the use of authorities to require chemical companies to come up to certain standards with appropriate penalties if they don't do so. I think the president has indicated that that kind of approach, if necessary, would be appropriate to make sure our chemical plants are safe.
KWAME HOLMAN: There were sharp questions from Michigan's Carl Levin, centering on Chertoff's years at the Justice Department and his role in forming Bush administration policy on the use of torture to interrogate suspected foreign terrorists.
Chertoff responded by stating torture is illegal, and that his input was limited to giving this advice: That whatever the action, be sure it falls well within the law. Chertoff is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate next week.