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."
Today, outsiders theorize that Chertoff might not have been a true believer in the Bush Justice Department's philosophy. "The conventional wisdom is that [Chertoff] was fighting a rear-guard action," says Michael Greenberger, a professor of law at the University of Maryland. "He wanted something saner, more fair to civil liberties." Others, like Frank Dunham, a public defender who argued against Chertoff in one phase of the Moussaoui case, say that's "spin." Says Dunham: "Let's just say, he argued this case zealously."
Smarts and passion are in Chertoff's blood. A rabbi's son, he was born in blue-collar Elizabeth, N.J. Worshipers from Elizabeth's former Congregation Bnai Israel remember Chertoff's father, Gershon Chertoff, as a man with a vast collection of books and a keen interest in current events. Michael's grandfather Paul Chertoff, also a rabbi, was a professor of the Talmud, the collected writings that constitute Jewish civil and religious law. His own intellectual drive carried Chertoff to Harvard, where he graduated with a history degree--his favorite historical figures are Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill--in 1975. Law school was practically a coming-out party for the brainy Chertoff. His law school classmate Scott Turow, author of such thrillers as Presumed Innocent, says Chertoff's slashing debating style served as something of a model for the characters in One L, Turow's narrative on the hypercompetitive culture at Harvard Law School. Chertoff's classroom banter, Turow says, was "a frank acknowledgment that part of the law is simply the joy of the duel." To absolutely no one's surprise, Chertoff was tapped for the Harvard Law Review.
Self-starter. After clerking for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, Chertoff approached then Associate Attorney General Rudolph Giuliani for a position as an assistant U.S. attorney; Giuliani was on his way to being the U.S. attorney in Manhattan. Chertoff became one of the few people the former New York mayor says he's ever hired on the spot. "I knew right away he would be a star," says Giuliani. It was Giuliani who assigned Chertoff, then 33, to argue the case against the Mafia "Commission," the body run by the heads of New York's five Mafia families. Chertoff sifted through hundreds of hours of surveillance tapes. Says Judge Maryanne Barry, who presided over a related case: "He knew everything those mob bosses ever said--and he used it to ravage them."
Chertoff then returned to New Jersey, married Meryl Justin, a fellow Harvard-trained lawyer (his second marriage), and set up shop as a special assistant to the U.S. attorney in New Jersey. In 1990, Chertoff was appointed to head the office; around the same time he switched his registration from independent to Republican. When President Bill Clinton arrived at the White House in 1993, Chertoff was the only U.S. attorney appointed by George H. W. Bush whom Clinton asked to stay on.
But Chertoff wouldn't always be so popular across the aisle. From 1994 to 1996, he served as the Republican special counsel for the Whitewater investigation, and his aggressive interrogations of White House officials soon earned him the nickname "the vulture." If Chertoff "is as tough on terrorists as he was on the Democrats in the Whitewater investigation," the former Democratic counsel, Glenn Ivey, has said of his old Whitewater opponent, "the nation is in pretty good hands."
Still, the homeland security agency presents an imposing challenge. Chertoff is expected to beef up the department's intelligence and policy-generating units as a result of his review, and he may pare down the Transportation Security Administration, which is responsible for securing all modes of transportation, into an airline-screeners organization only. No one doubts that DHS needs work. "We threw together 22 distinct agencies," says Jim Carafano of the Heritage Foundation. "What did we expect?" Not much, perhaps. But that's about to change. Over the course of his career, Mike Chertoff has made this much clear: He expects plenty .
Born: Nov. 28, 1953.
Family: Married, wife Meryl. Two children.
Education: Harvard (B.A. history; law degree).
Public Service: U.S. attorney, N.J., 1990-1994; Justice Department, 2001-2003; judge, U.S. Court of Appeals 2003-2005; secretary, Department of Homeland Security, 2005-present.
This story appears in the July 18, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.