Q & A: Chertoff reflects on tenure
'As one threat fades, another may come in'
By H. Darr Beiser
Interview with USA Today's Editorial Board
Michael Chertoff: "I don't see a nuclear weapon being used in the next couple of years unless we get a proliferator or failed state that puts one in the wrong hands." (AP Photo)
WASHINGTON — With just a month left before he leaves office, President Bush and his administration can claim credit for having successfully defended this country from another terrorist attack. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said as much in a recent interview with USA TODAY's editorial board. But the secretary, who has run the department since 2005, also noted the dangers that lie ahead, including the possibility of a nuclear, chemical or biological attack on U.S. soil. What about airport security, for which he is responsible? The border fence and immigration control, which also falls under his purview? Chertoff discussed these issues and others. His comments were edited for length and clarity:
Question: As you look back on your tenure as the secretary of Homeland Security, what legacy do you and the administration leave behind?
Answer: I always touch wood when I say this, but I do think looking back it's quite remarkable that we have not had a successful attack against this country since Sept. 11. It has really been the president's leadership that has allowed us to avoid attack. In terms of the transition, I've known my successor (Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano) for 15 years both as U.S. attorney and when I was secretary here. I look forward to supporting her in any way I can.
Q: Who is the war on terrorism against? Is it al-Qaeda? Is it the tactic, which seems impossible to eradicate? Or is it Islamic radicalism?
A: What we're confronting is an ideological conflict with an extremist world view that I don't think is an accurate representative of Islam, but uses the language or hijacks Islam for an extremist agenda. It's an ideology that's reflected in al-Qaeda, and it's reflected in Lashkar-e-Taiba, which everybody now knows because of (the Mumbai attacks). That is the struggle, and unlike the Cold War victory, I don't think there's going to be a wall that comes down. It will be a process of using hard power to strike back at the leaders and using soft power to change the breeding ground where people try to recruit.
Q: What lessons do you see for the United States from the Mumbai attacks?
A: Some people say take FEMA out (of Homeland Security) because they're consequence management and the rest of the department is prevention and protection. But if you look at Mumbai, you see that's not true. When you have an event, you have to coordinate your police and your military, and if you have fire and emergency responders, you have to coordinate those, too.
Q: Our nation's focus has been mostly on al-Qaeda, but shouldn't we be concerned about other terrorist organizations as well?
A: We're facing an era where as one threat fades, another may come in. The line between criminality and extremist politics may become a blurry line. And because of technology, the ability of informal network groups to do damage will become increasing problematic.
Q: If you were staying for another four years, what would be your top priorities?
A: Calming my wife down. (Laughs). I would worry long term about a low-probability, high-cost event. A weapon of mass destruction — biological, nuclear, maybe radiological. That's the area where the most work needs to be done because it requires the most investment and time.
Q: For several years, the administration has described Iraq as the central front in the war on terror. Is that still the case?
A: I would look at the whole space from Iraq to the frontier area of Pakistan as the central front. There's no question that we have dealt very serious blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq, but if we were to leave it, it would rapidly come back. We need to simultaneously look at what needs to be done in Pakistan.
Q: A recent congressional report said that there will probably be an attack somewhere in the world using a weapon of mass destruction within the next five years. Do you agree, and what about biological weapons?
A: We've seen chemical weapons used, and they're not that hard to make. But they're not that likely to kill thousands of people. (In terms of) a nuclear weapon, there is a huge amount of difference in terms of consequence. On the other hand, I don't see a nuclear weapon being used in the next couple of years unless we get a proliferator or failed state that puts one in the wrong hands.
Q: A problem cited after 9/11 was that we lacked human intelligence. Is that still true?
A: Across the board, human intelligence, signals intelligence, open-source intelligence and the ability to collect, fuse and analyze large amounts of information allow us to see where the threats are.
Q: Fliers expect security screening, but what's happening to crews and others behind the security gate, where progress has lagged?
A: We're at (code) orange now, so we're doing a lot of screening in the back part of the airport. We're running a couple of pilot (programs) where everybody in the back would go through the same screening that everyone goes through in the front. We've also tightened up on security badges to make sure they're reclaimed when people leave.
Q: You said recently that you expected about 90% of the border fence to be completed by the time you leave. Your successor has questioned its value. Is it the right answer?
A: Congress overwhelmingly voted for this. But I'm not looking to build a fence if it's not necessary. Some of the fence we're building is vehicle barriers, not pedestrian barriers. But we did a ceremony recently where I met with the widow of a border agent killed by a smuggler who ran him over when he was crossing the border. Had there been a fence there, this would not have happened. Now is the fence by itself a be-all and end-all? Of course not.
Q: What do your latest numbers tell you about our progress on immigration?
A: The Pew Hispanic Center a few months ago said for the first time they see the illegal immigrant population flat or diminishing. Our metrics on border crossings have gone down. I think it's the economy going down. But also Pew measured legal immigration and illegal immigration and it was the first time illegal was below legal. So that tells us it's not just the economy but it's enforcement also.
Q: Do you have to wear too many hats?
A: The things I've learned from dealing with natural disasters have been very helpful in terms of thinking about how to deal with terrorism. And some of the strategic issues we've done at the border on immigration have been extremely helpful in doing things at the border to keep terrorists from coming across. You tend to bring things from one area into another area, which I think is helpful.
Q: With your job, what is life like?
A: It's a 24/7 job. Something isn't happening every minute of your life, but you have to be prepared every minute of every day. So I've had interrupted vacations; the traditional 3 a.m. phone call. In August, when most people are on vacation, I'm working at peak. So next August I'll be able to really take a vacation and not worry about the weather. It's a job where you know that as long as you do it, it's going to be a sprint — and it's going to be a long-winded sprint. What you're hoping to do is do the job right, protect the country and then the day you leave, collapse, which is what I plan to do.