After the Bush Administration's embarrassing nomination of the buffoon Bernard Kerik to replace Tom Ridge as Homeland Security Secretary, a far more sober nominee has emerged in the person of former federal prosecutor Michael Chertoff.
The well-educated and articulate Chertoff has earned a reputation as a hard-nosed prosecutor and a creative strategist. He has gone after organized crime outfits with an aggressive and controversial tactic of locking up suspects, against whom evidence is weak, as "material witnesses." With this he did significant damage to several New York area crime families in the mid 1980s.
He extended the same tactic to the domestic "war on terror," with far less success, while serving as head of the DoJ's Criminal Division for two years following the 9/11 atrocities.
He also went after Enron, and helped to expose the related Arthur Andersen accounting scandal. He showed somewhat less zeal in investigating the cozy relations between Enron's former chairman, Ken Lay, and President George W Bush, however.
While at DoJ, Chertoff was instrumental in drafting the so-called "PATRIOT" Act, but, to his credit, he has since expressed misgivings about its more Draconian elements, such as detention without due process.
During his tenure at the DoJ, the government locked up many hundreds of immigrants on no evidence and to no public security benefit. Virtually all were innocent, yet they found themselves in a Kafkaesque legal purgatory of secret evidence and charges that could never be challenged. And the few cases where the government had real evidence have been badly botched. Chertoff's record as a terror fighter is about as dismal as his record as a gangbuster is laudable.
This may not be entirely his fault. His former boss, US attorney general John Ashcroft - certainly no one's idea of an intellectual heavyweight - may well have pressured the Criminal Division to enact a public rain dance suggesting that "something is being done." The urge to create a public impression of counterterrorist activity would no doubt have been a powerful inducement to DoJ's brutish blundering in that realm.
Chertoff has no experience administering a bureaucracy as vast as DHS - which, according to military analyst Thomas Barnett, now supports two bureaucrats for every hardcore jihadist worldwide - but he has proven himself - at least in criminal affairs - to be a competent, imaginative, and adaptable manager. And unlike Kerik, there are no questions about his personal integrity, intelligence, or maturity.
He will have his hands full if he intends to whip DHS into an effective agency. Current Homeland Security Czar Tom Ridge has enjoyed little success, though hardly due to any lack of qualifications on his part. The Department is enormous, sluggish, and neurotically preoccupied with defending the US from attacks that have already occurred. The top job at DHS is hardly an enviable one.
The Senate is expected to confirm Chertoff without much difficulty, because of time lost during the Kerik sideshow, it is possible that Ridge will step down before Chertoff takes over the post. ®
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