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Nevertheless, even in Katrina, “a lot of FEMA people on the ground did a good job with search and rescue.” They just did it, he said, without proper support from above.
More importantly, Chertoff noted that the Coast Guard, which is also part of DHS, joined with private citizens and with the state and federal Fish and Wildlife services to rescue 55,000 people in the wake of the storm. (True enough: See this story for more details.)
Chertoff also said that New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast were victims of bad timing. He said that the “first serious” federal departmental study of a major disaster in New Orleans did not occur all during the 1990s but instead began in 2004 and was not quite completed when Katrina hit. Not only that, but reforms of FEMA based on a systemic review Chertoff ordered had not yet had time to take place: The review was completed in July of 2005, but its recommendations were not authorized to go into law until October of that year. Katrina hit on August 29, right in the interregnum between FEMA’s former operational methods and implementation of its reformed ones.
INDEED, A RECURRING THEME DURING the interview, and a legitimate one, was the newness of DHS and the reality that major improvements can’t just be willed into existence overnight. (It took some 40 years, Chertoff noted, for the various military branches to be effectively integrated under the Department of Defense, which goal finally was achieved through the Goldwater-Nichols law in 1986.) Nevertheless, the Secretary said much progress is being made.
For example, he refuted criticisms that DHS is badly lagging in its duty to scour the nation’s ports for signs of smuggled weapons of mass murder. On the contrary, he said: “We are actually ahead of schedule in using radiation portal monitors. We’ll have them operational in 80% of our ports by October. We’re making it very much harder for people to smuggle [dangerous] things into our country in containers.”
On another front, all foreign visitors to the United States are now subjected to a two-finger electronic fingerprint test. A ten-finger test is in the works. For airport security, inspectors are now better able to identify not just bombs but detonators, and better at “pattern recognition” to identify suspicious types of behavior. And so on, Chertoff said, giving other examples of how, “in general, we have raised the level of security in all the ways we operate.”
Most important, he said, was the “next generation of radiation detection, which will be much more discriminating” — and able to be used not just at ports and borders but anywhere within the United States itself, with “sensors enabled to be deployed more quickly.”
“Of all the challenges that we face… the really catastrophic attack is the one that in the end we have to make sure we devote some real investment to. The whole name of the game is long-term investment in security.”
Finally, somehow the interview segued into the topic of why even ordinary citizens in their everyday lives ought to remain vigilant. It was ordinary citizens, Chertoff said, who kept airplane “shoe bomber” Richard Reid — reportedly no genius — from carrying out his intended terrorism. Using what he said was a New York word for less-than-impressive folks, Chertoff said, “Sometimes it is the ‘mopes’ that can do the greatest damage. The idea that you have to be an ingenious TV villain to be a threat is wrong.”
IN SUM, MICHAEL CHERTOFF has a huge job. DHS oversees a vast array of functions; some would even call it an unwieldy array. There’s FEMA, and the Coast Guard, and the Secret Service, and the Transportation Security Administration, and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection, and Citizenship Immigration Services, and an Office of Intelligence Analysis, and offices on domestic preparedness, energy security, animal and plant health inspections, and protection against a pandemic flu. “We unify in one department all the tools you need for threats to the county: for prevention, protection, and response,” Chertoff said.
In Chertoff, President George W. Bush has chosen for oversight of all these tasks a man who, one-on-one, demonstrates a piercing intelligence, a near-encyclopedic knowledge of his subjects, and an obvious mental toughness born of prosecuting mobsters and terrorists in some of the most important cases on record. Final judgment on Chertoff’s record will be difficult, because it’s hard to gauge the “dog that didn’t bark” or the bomb that didn’t blow. And a great city and a lovely coastline both lie in ruins on his watch — victims, to be sure, of a storm of unprecedented scope and viciousness, but also of inadequate preparation and response by officials who were supposed to be reporting to him.
But the impression Chertoff leaves on an interviewer, or on others that have worked with him, is that if this man isn’t competent, going forward, to handle the mammoth job of homeland protection, then nobody can be. These are dangerous times, and never let it be said that Michael Chertoff — former veteran prosecutor, terrorism task force chief, scourge of organized crime, and federal appellate judge — is a man who backs down from danger.
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