A New Sheriff in Town
Mike Chertoff is no stranger to big challenges--and he doesn't mind playing the villain. As a federal prosecutor, Chertoff not only helped bring down the leaders of New York City's five Mafia families but also successfully prosecuted Sol Wachtler, a judge beloved by feminists, for stalking a former mistress. "No one," says Stephen Salmore, a former Republican consultant and political science professor at Rutgers University, "wants to be on the wrong side of a case against Chertoff."
These days, the troubled Department of Homeland Security is in Chertoff's cross hairs, which is good news and bad news for the folks who work there, since he now runs the department. Last week, Chertoff stepped before the cameras to raise the threat level for the nation's mass transit systems in the wake of the London attacks. It wasn't the first time he'd made news in his new job, and it won't be the last. Shortly after Chertoff took over DHS, he bluntly announced that "we cannot protect every person in every place at every moment," then vowed to conduct a comprehensive review of the department. Results of that examination are expected this week. And with DHS still the target of criticism from Congress and the Government Accountability Office, it's unlikely the acerbic New Jersey native will opt for the status quo.
Friends and former colleagues universally describe the 51-year-old Chertoff as brilliant and intense. "The man has a mind like a computer," says Robert Giuffra, a New York attorney and former Chertoff colleague. When he worked with him in Washington, Giuffra says, Chertoff would read reams of legal documents during his morning train commute from New Jersey, jot a few thoughts down, and then use that data to cross-examine witnesses for hours. A passionate distance runner and fan of the uberspy show 24, Chertoff is "a straight shooter, and he's passionate about this job in a very un-Washington way," says Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House's homeland security adviser. "For him, this job is not about Mike."
What Chertoff really cares about, officials say, is instituting his own philosophy for hardening the homeland. In his first public-policy address, Chertoff said he would use the "trio of threat, vulnerability, and consequence" in deciding what to emphasize. In English, that means he'll focus on targets that are either high risk or virtually unsecured, or that have the potential for mass casualties--or some combination. Chertoff has already called for state grants to be allocated according to risk--as opposed to factors like population--and he has demanded enforceable security standards for the nation's 15,000 chemical plants.
Some were surprised that he was even interested in the DHS job. In 2003, Chertoff, then a Justice Department official, was given a plum lifetime appointment as a federal judge with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. But perhaps he missed the action. As head of the Justice Department's criminal division from 2001 to 2003, Chertoff had orchestrated the detention of 762 Arabs and other Muslims in the months after September 11 and supervised the prosecution of John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban fighter, and Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker. "We are in a time of war," Chertoff said in a 2002 speech. "If you . . . look at the total picture, the government has been very restrained."