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Michael Chertoff is Nominated to Head Department of Homeland Security

January 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: For more on the president’s choice for homeland security chief, we turn now to three people who know Michael Chertoff.

George Terwilliger was deputy attorney general for the first President Bush during the years that Chertoff served as a U.S. Attorney, and he has maintained a personal and professional friendship with Chertoff since then.

Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the 9/11 Commission, squared off against Chertoff during the Whitewater hearings, when Ben-Veniste was chief counsel for the Senate Democrats.

And Elaine Shannon has covered the Justice Department for years as crime and national security correspondent for Time Magazine. Welcome to you all.

George Terwilliger, give us some insight into Michael Chertoff. What does he bring in a terms of his personal professional qualities to this job?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: I think Mike is a great choice for what is one of the more difficult cabinet jobs in Washington because he has the energy, the integrity, and the background in the substantive things that homeland security is about to get the job done. I think he’ll do a great job and people will be happy he’s there.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you as high on his choice, Richard?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: I think it’s an interesting choice. I have a very high regard for Mike Chertoff’s intellect, and his capacity for hard work. He knows these agencies, and I think he knows what needs to be done.

MARGARET WARNER: When you say he knows these agencies, meaning like at Justice he’s had to deal with what, FBI, immigration, some of the agencies that have to either intersect or interact with Homeland Security?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Yes, there are 22 different agencies that comprise the Department of Homeland Security. The reorganization that put all these agencies together was the biggest reorganization our country has seen since World War II.

MARGARET WARNER: Elaine Shannon, I’m not going to ask you to give your opinion of Michael Chertoff as a choice, but tell us how he was regarded inside the Justice Department during the years when he was head of the criminal division, how much of a force was he in Justice?

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, he was the brain behind the whole 9/11 strategy, except for some of the Supreme Court arguments.

He’s the guy who said we’re going to go spitting on the sidewalk strategy now; that means that if you’re an illegal alien, they happen to find you, maybe you were not connected in any way with terrorists, still if you are illegal they would take you in and they would hold you and then you’d end up facing deportation proceedings.

If they thought you were a terrorist, they would use any law they could to get you off the streets. It’s an old term from mob prosecution days, and Mike Chertoff is an old mob prosecutor, and it was very effective but very controversial.

MARGARET WARNER: Speaking as his days as a mob prosecutor, George Terwilliger, and this is when he was a U.S. Attorney and you were number two at the Justice Department, what did he really accomplish then? I don’t mean a litany of all his cases necessarily, but how effective was he, and what was his operating style?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Well, that’s a great question because it does go to Mike’s ability and his background to do this job well, I think, Margaret, because what Mike’s mark was that he could work with a wide variety of people from a wide variety of agencies and not just federal agencies, but state and local as well.

Mike was extremely well respected in New Jersey as giving everybody a place at the table and an opportunity to participate.

MARGARET WARNER: But fair to say very aggressive, hard nosed?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Absolutely aggressive and very hard nosed, but also in a very measured and balanced way. Mike has got a great intellect and it’s easy to be a tough guy. It’s more difficult to be a tough and fair guy, but Mike can do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in the Whitewater hearings, Richard Ben-Veniste, he came under some criticism from those who thought the whole thing was a political witch-hunt. Do you feel that he operated that way, or was he fair minded?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: I think the client in that case was more aggressive than perhaps counsel might have been under other circumstances.

MARGARET WARNER: The client being?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: The senators on the majority side. As we know, Whitewater discovered neither impropriety, much less illegality on the part of the president. But Mike is a hard-charger, he’s aggressive, and I think the knock on him is, if anything, over aggressiveness.

Now, that was almost ten years ago. So he’s had some time to mature, I think, and this is a much different assignment. And so I was pleased to hear that he talked this morning about balancing the need to protect civil rights and privacy, because that is an essential part of this job.

MARGARET WARNER: Going back to the post -9/11 era, Elaine Shannon, talk a little more about, I mean, is it fair to say that he really was one of the major architects of all the different, including the controversial portions of the Patriot Act, for instance enhanced FBI surveillance powers, holding people as material witnesses, all those different elements?

ELAINE SHANNON: Yes, I think he was very much taking the point on those. Now, if you look at the larger actions that the administration did, I don’t believe that he was on the side of military tribunals.

He’d come up in the criminal justice system as we’ve traditionally known, and I believe that he thought that process could work fine; George can tell you more about that. Also I don’t know where he stood on the issue on Geneva Conventions.

The torture memo that we heard about last week that came out of the White House and out of Alberto Gonzales’ office, that never went through Chertoff’s office; it’s very interesting that the people who had been in jury trials and the Justice Department never got to see that memo; it was sort of off to the side there.

MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact, Mr. Ben-Veniste, didn’t he, after he left Justice, he was quoted at a couple of conferences actually being somewhat critical of some of the detention policies?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: I think so, Margaret. He’d seemed to distance himself somewhat from some of the more aggressive aspects both of the Patriot Act and the roundup policies.

MARGARET WARNER: Can you shed any light on that, Mr. Terwilliger, as a friend of his, in terms of where he sees the balance?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Not perhaps so much as a friend of his but as somebody that had the opportunity to converse with Mike and other people immediately in the time after 9/11. I think it’s important that we keep in mind that this wasn’t a one-phase type of reaction.

There was a phase and a reaction that was entirely appropriate immediately after 9/11 when the country seemed, and I think was in extreme danger. And there was an aggressive use, taking the law to its limits to make —

MARGARET WARNER: As Elaine was describing.

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Exactly, to keep the country safe. Then we turn to a more long-term solution. And I think that’s where Mike probably made his greatest contribution was in looking down the road; as the president has said time and again, this is not a one-year or two-year problem, this is a very long-term problem and we need some long-term strategies to deal with it.

And I’m glad Mike will be back in the mix on policy to help with that.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Elaine, what does the choice of Michael Chertoff tell you about what President Bush is looking for in this new head of Homeland Security?

I mean, he’s certainly just in personality, and somewhat in background, very different from Bernard Kerik or Tom Ridge.

ELAINE SHANNON: Well, number one, he can get confirmed in a heartbeat. This guy has been through that process three times, he leads a rather austere life, as far as I can tell. I think he works almost all the time, and when he is not taking care of his kids and running, he’s in the office. I don’t think he sleeps.

Number two: he is a very decisive man. I’ve never heard anybody call him a bully or unpleasant, but he likes to get in there, he’s a man of action, he doesn’t like to chew the fat for hours and hours; in other words, I think he likes to fish or cut bait. And that will be, I think, his management style at the Department of Homeland Security, where there’s a huge, huge management problem there.

MARGARET WARNER: The inspector general, Mr. Ben-Veniste, of the Homeland Security Department issued a report in November saying there are huge management challenges, quote unquote, in this behemoth agency of, what,180,000 people.

Does the background of being a prosecutor and a Justice Department official, and a judge prepare you for running a huge agency like that?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Not particularly, I don’t think. And that’s the area of skepticism with respect to this. But Gov. Ridge had Adm. Lloyd, I’m sure Mike Chertoff will supplement his skills and abilities with able administrators.

But this is a challenge beyond that, which anybody has faced in getting these 22 agencies working together, singing from the same song book, and using the same IT.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s your view of that?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Well, I think Mike will be a really hands-on manager. I mean, he ran a large U.S. Attorney’s office, running the criminal division of the Justice Department is a national responsibility.

I don’t think Mike will have any difficulty taking the next step up to a cabinet position. And I have no doubt that people throughout the Department of Homeland Security from top to bottom will know exactly what the secretary wants.

MARGARET WARNER: As Elaine said. Mr. Ben-Veniste, finally, draw on your experience as a 9/11 Commissioner. And of course the period you were looking at we know was a period where the Department did not exist.


MARGARET WARNER: But when you look at the whole problem of protecting this country, you must have thought about what was needed in this job. What are the biggest challenges facing it, and does he seem suited for that?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Aside from the administrative job of melding these different agencies in one cohesive agency, the job entails prioritizing, assessing our vulnerabilities, and then making decisions as to where the dollars need to go to protect our homeland.

Border security, transportation, beyond airline security we’ve got rail, and port security to deal with. And then there’s the issue of prioritizing the funds from national, from this Department to the states and cities.

It’s a mess now; it’s pork barrel now; and it’s got to change. New York City, which has been the target of I think six terrorist attacks, is 49th out of 50 states in terms of per capita dollars that they are receiving. So there’s got to be some strength and leadership there in terms of prioritizing that process.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that in terms of what’s on their plate?

ELAINE SHANNON: We’ve got to get the Europeans and other foreign countries to go along.

They need to start telling the United States who’s on the airplanes and the other conveyances coming into this country before they get up in the air, or they take off because there’s just not enough time to run down their backgrounds without date of birth, a passport number and other information.

This last Department tried and was not able to get that kind of information early on, and they need to work on this now.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Terwilliger, isn’t it also a big part of this job working with state and local officials, that was supposed to be Tom Ridge’s great strength when he was brought in. How well suited — first of all, talk about that a little — and how well suited do you think Chertoff is for that?

GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Well, it is a big part of the job, and it’s really the Homeland Security Department I think is on the forefront of a totally new relationship between the federal government and the states and localities.

The need for cooperation and joint effort is as if never, it’s never been before. I think Mike is well suited to that; when he was a U.S. Attorney in New Jersey he ran an organization from his office that was designed to coordinate law enforcement activities in areas like drugs and violent crime and gangs and so forth.

So he knows how to get it done. And I think when a person who has been a U.S. Attorney has had the opportunity to be on the ground and listen firsthand to police chiefs, mayors and other state and local officials who really communicate what their needs are, can’t always meet them, but I think they’ll find a friend.

MARGARET WARNER: George Terwilliger, Elaine Shannon, Richard Ben-Veniste, thank you.