Chertoff’s Challenges

Assuming he can maintain his predecessor’s successful record of preventing a terrorist attack on American soil—the number one challenge to anyone in his position—his next greatest challenge will be ensuring that Americans’ civil liberties are not being stripped away. He’s already sensitive to this. It was fitting that he went right to the heart of the matter when he was introduced by President Bush and stated: “If confirmed, I pledge to devote all my energy to promoting our homeland security, and as important, to preserving our fundamental liberties.”
Those involved in the arcana of homeland security can often lose sight of the most common interface between the American public and the Department of Homeland Security. It’s not by government policy or biometric identification or even the alert system that most Americans know the Department. Rather, it’s the moment at airports when their luggage is searched and they takeoff their shoes and they walk through metal detectors under the department’s looming seal.
This is also the moment when many Americans feel most intruded upon by their government. As the terror threat seems to recede and the memories of Sept. 11, 2001 fade, the difficulties and delays seem less like common sense protective measures and more like unnecessary hassles.
Mr. Chertoff must reassure the public that its rights are intact, and he must do this not just at his confirmation hearings but in the day-to-day functioning of DHS. At the same time, he must convince all Americans that security and vigilance cannot slacken because it is this that keeps the country safe.
When it comes to DHS itself, however, Chertoff’s challenge is one of management. DHS still doesn’t function as a single department and the struggle to meld its components grinds on. Chertoff has some management experience but not a great deal so a heavy burden will fall on Michael Jackson, the deputy secretary nominee. Jackson is primarily known for outsourcing the Transportation Security Administration’s information technology infrastructure. We certainly hope he can put his abilities to use in consolidating, streamlining and building an efficient department.
It’s interesting that in picking Chertoff and before him former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, President Bush looked to the law enforcement community, indicating that he sees homeland security as largely a law enforcement discipline. Those involved in homeland security know, however, that it is much broader and deeper than that, as can be seen in the scope and scale of the former agencies that now make up DHS. Chertoff will have to think well outside his legal background and training as he leads the department and the national homeland security effort.
Chertoff must also lift the department beyond the corrosive cynicism about homeland security that is a legacy of the presidential campaign. Increasingly, many Americans are coming to believe that the administration maintains a state of fear to keep itself in power. They disbelieve the color coded alert system or suspect that security measures have a political motivation. Chertoff must convince the public that the department is apolitical and that security measures are security driven.
As a former governor, Tom Ridge was acutely conscious of the role of states and localities in providing for overall homeland security. Regardless of its other flaws, DHS did look well beyond Washington DC and state homeland security directors were grateful, as HSToday has chronicled. Homeland security will not be built inside the Beltway. Chertoff cannot lose sight of this.
Chertoff must prevail in the budget battles that lie before him. Other than defense and homeland security all government agencies will face cuts in the 2006 fiscal year. Despite the favor of the White House and Congress, however, he will have to spend wisely and well, with the whole country looking over his shoulder.
The job of secretary of homeland security has evolved into one of the toughest ones in the entire government, as has often been said. It’s a combination of manager, master spy, top cop, diplomat, first responder, admiral, politician and educator. The secretary presides over a fledgling department still finding its way. And in this business, unlike any other, everything can literally change in an instant—the time it takes a suicide bomber to press a button.
We certainly wish Michael Chertoff well. We will watch with interest—and hope. HST

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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