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U.S.: Can Nominee Tame Homeland Security Bureaucracy?

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. President George W. Bush has chosen a federal prosecutor-turned-judge as his nominee to replace Tom Ridge as secretary of the Homeland Security Department. If confirmed by the Senate, Michael Chertoff would take control of an agency created in response to the attacks of 11 September 2001, and that already has 180,000 employees. The department is an amalgam of 22 federal bureaucracies with responsibilities ranging from border and airline security to law enforcement.

Washington, 12 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In announcing the nomination at the White House yesterday, President George W. Bush said Michael Chertoff has played a key role in U.S. antiterrorism efforts ever since the "9/11" attacks:

"In the days after 11 September [2001], Mike [Chertoff] helped trace the attacks to the Al-Qaeda network," Bush said. "He understood immediately that the strategy in the war on terror is to prevent attacks before they occur. His energy and intellect put him at the center of many vital homeland security improvements, especially increased information sharing within the [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and with state and local officials."

As a federal prosecutor in New Jersey, Chertoff handled cases involving politicians, kidnappers, and corrupt businessmen. As a legislative counsel there, he helped end the discredited state police practice of "racial profiling" -- using race to develop profiles of suspected criminals.

Eventually, Chertoff became chief of the Justice Department's 800-member criminal division when Bush became president in 2001. In this capacity he helped shape the U.S. response to the 9-11 attacks. Bush eventually made him a federal judge.
As a federal prosecutor in New Jersey, Chertoff handled cases involving politicians, kidnappers, and corrupt businessmen. As a legislative counsel there, he helped end the discredited state police practice of "racial profiling" -- using race to develop profiles of suspected criminals.


Several senators -- even members of the opposition Democratic Party -- welcomed Chertoff's nomination, indicating that he will be confirmed without much resistance. But observers of security issues told RFE/RL that his confirmation hearing will be the least of Chertoff's worries.

Running the Homeland Security Department, they said, probably will be a thankless job.

No matter how talented Chertoff might be, he might not be able to tame the department's sprawling bureaucracy, according to Doug Bandow, a security expert who served as a special assistant to former President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Bandow noted that the 9/11 attacks might have been prevented if agencies with law enforcement, border security, and related duties had shared information more efficiently. He said this lack of cooperation often arises from interagency rivalry.

But Bandow added that combining the functions of the disparate agencies is no solution, because departments joined in a single agency can be just as jealous of their own spheres of influence -- and therefore just as uncooperative.

"I think the problem goes back to the creation of the department, that what we clearly needed was better coordination and communication," Bangow said. "It's not clear the best way to get that was by creating kind of this massive omnibus department. So he [Chertoff] has got a very tough task ahead of him."

Charles Pena, who studies defense and security issues at the Cato Institute, a private research center in Washington, noted that the sheer size of the Homeland Security Department could make it lose its focus on the task of preventing attacks on American soil.

Despite their concerns, both analysts said they are optimistic that Chertoff can do his job effectively. But Bandow conceded that his hopes arise from what he called the need for success in fighting terrorism. The alternative, he said, would be disaster.

"I have hopes because, in a sense, I have to have hopes. This is a critical function," Bandow said. "I think everyone involved should recognize that this [running the Homeland Security Department] is a very real challenge, and certainly the new head of the agency has to recognize that. This is a long battle. It's going to be very hard to make that department work well, and that's the reality of the system, so we don't want to fool ourselves."

Pena said his hopes are grounded in Chertoff's background. He pointed to the judge's work against racial profiling and his belief that the cases of suspected terrorists can be handled in civil courts, not military tribunals.

Further, Pena said, Chertoff also might serve as an important counterbalance to the "neoconservatives" who dominated policy in Bush's first term as president.

"Judge Chertoff appears not to be a neoconservative ideologue and loyalist," Pena said. "He appears to be a more independent-minded thinker. He may be willing to air different views and maybe challenge other cabinet members such as [Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld, maybe even disagree with the president in a forceful or vocal manner. And that might be good for the Department of Homeland Security."

But Pena added that during the past four years, Rumsfeld and like-minded Bush aides have usually had the upper hand -- and there's no reason to think that will change now.
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