Defense Media Network

The Honorable Michael Chertoff, Former DHS Secretary Interview

What was your biggest surprise in the job?

I think, I wouldn’t describe it as a surprise, but the most unexpected benefit was the relationship I developed as the [military] service secretary of the Coast Guard. I don’t think I focused on the fact that other than the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Homeland Security is the only other [Cabinet] secretary who has a military service in his domain. Since I had not served in the military, it introduced me to the culture of the military, which is a unique and very admirable culture, in a way that I did not anticipate when I came in. It turned out to be one of the great pleasures of the job that I discovered pretty quickly.

What’s the most serious threat to the homeland today, and how do we address it?

In terms of consequence, I would say biological terrorism is the most serious threat. It’s not a threat that I think is imminent, although we’ve had an attack in 2001 with anthrax. It is also one which would not be impossible to fabricate in a short period of time because the raw material for a biological attack occurs in nature or you can just have the know-how. So I would say if it was of high consequence, that worries me the most and I do become concerned.

What’s the best investment in homeland security today?

Right now I would say the best investment for the government would be cybersecurity. It’s the area where I think we have still the greatest vulnerability relative to the amount of security we’ve put in place. One of the reasons for that is it’s the set of assets that are most widely distributed in the private sector. There are real challenges in terms of what role the government plays in cyber security because you’re getting into very sensitive areas that touch on the First Amendment.

That being said, the fact that it’s a hard problem does not mean it’s a problem we should ignore. We need to invest not only the knowhow, but in setting up the basic architecture and the authorities that we’re going to need in order to enable the private sector to protect assets on which we will depend.

What about private-sector investment? What’s the best investment for them to be making?

I would have to say cybersecurity as well. Most businesses and critical infrastructure have the basic set of tools that they need to continue to refine, but at least they’ve got something going.

Depending on what your particular business or facility is, you’re going to have some protection from the physical surroundings, vetting of your employees, some kind of protection for travel. You should, if you’ve been paying attention, have a contingency plan for a pandemic flu or some similar kind of biological incident, but the area where again I think we see uneven behavior is in the cyber area.

You alluded in one of your earlier responses about working with the Coast Guard and the talent you had the opportunity to work with. Over the course of your career you’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide cadre of people, from public sector, private sector, from the legal world, from the military world. What are some of the leadership skills that you think we really need to be developing for homeland security leaders today so that we can be more resilient and more successful?

I think you put your finger on it when describing the breadth of interactions that I had, which really reflect the breadth of interactions anybody in homeland security is going to have. It is a domain that’s going to take you – in a single day – from dealing with the military, to the private sector, to lawyers, to engineers, to people in schools and community centers.

In terms of a civilian domain, where there is no such thing as command and control, where it’s about achieving unity of effort through coordination across a wide series or a wide spectrum of actors, the key is to learn how to lead by coordination. What that means is how to set and explain what your goals are; how to help the various elements that have to come together understand how their particular talents and capabilities fit within those goals, but also to make sure everybody has ownership of the goal. That requires a different set of skills than just the traditional top-down management. It really involves being able to work with colleagues in a networked way across a wide spectrum of business and government cultures.

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...