Defense Media Network

The Honorable Michael Chertoff, Former DHS Secretary Interview

Terrorism experts and homeland security leaders including you have said it’s not a matter of “if,” but rather “when” another act of terror will occur in the United States. Are you surprised we’ve not been attacked?

Well, we’ve been attacked. It hasn’t been successful.

I mean, going back to the shoe-bomber we had a series of efforts to attack us, and they’ve all been frustrated. They’ve all been frustrated because we often acted early. I recognize we have been attacked, I am confident there will be future efforts to attack us, and the variable is are we going to be able to frustrate those efforts.

We’ve done a lot by doing what we’ve done in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We’ve done a lot with what we’ve done at the borders; what we’ve done internally; and what we’ve done for intelligence collection and analysis. But this is a dynamic process, so with each refinement that the enemy puts in place, there’s going to be a countermeasure we’re going to have to be prepared to put in place at the same time or before. I think that is the thing which I worry about when I look down the road.

Now that you’re in the private sector, how have your views about the private sector and what it can do for homeland security changed?

The upside is, it’s given me the opportunity to become much more personally acquainted with some of the entrepreneurial and technological skills that the private sector brings to the problem. You know when you’re a Cabinet secretary, particularly because of the procurement rules and complicated rules about acquisition; you tend to view technology at the end of a long funnel. You don’t see it from the perspective of people who are working on it.

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.

It’s been fascinating for me to see all the ingenuity that’s out there. What I sometimes see is that the people who work on these solutions are frustrated because they think they have something good, but they don’t know what it’s good for. They have a solution but they don’t know what the problem is. In fact, a lot of what I find that I do now is really help people understand what it is that they can solve, because if you know what you’re solving then you can adapt your technology, your ingenuity to actually produce a positive result.

Who should bear the burden – the public or private sector – when it comes to research and development (R&D) for the technologies and products that we need to have deployed to protect the country from a range of hazards?

Well, I think that the government certainly can do things to promote R&D, the way we do with DARPA, the way we started to do with [the] Science and Technology [Directorate], which is to seed research into areas that we know operationally would be beneficial to us, as well as devoting a certain percent of the budget – I think we used to put about 10 percent – into the kind of long-ball, Hail Mary pass type of effort that, while unlikely to succeed, would, if it did succeed, be a game-changer.

I think you’ve got to have a spectrum. But at the same time, the government is not the only consumer of homeland security. The private sector itself consumes homeland security.

Some of the key to the research is understanding what the need is. If you can identify a felt need in a market, it’s like any other business. You can then work to take the tools you have and make them adaptable to meet that market need.

One of the resounding criticisms on DHS in its early days was that it was too focused on terrorism at the expense of preparing for other hazards. Shortly after you took office, along comes the 2005 hurricane season with Katrina, Rita, and Wilma that literally shocked us all. Based upon that experience do you think there’s a better balance now at the department and how the nation views and prepares for threats?

I don’t think there’s any question that Katrina, in particular, was a traumatic experience and caused us to invest a tremendous amount of effort into understanding how we had to reconfigure the department, including FEMA, to deal with the admittedly exceptional but nevertheless real occurrence where local and state government is overwhelmed and can’t perform the traditional function that the doctrine says is: “They’re the first responders.”

The federal government had not really prepared for first response in the civilian domain. The military had the capabilities, but we’d never really closed the circle in merging those with the civilian authorities.

That’s a lot of what we did, as I spent a lot of personal time of mine in the two years right after Katrina, and of course the test came when we did Gustav. That actually was a great example of how all the lessons learned were put into effect, because we had created that relationship between the military and the civilian authorities. We had done the planning, the preparation, the capacity building that had not been before, and I think that’s resulted in a department that’s better balanced. Although I have to say as we speak now, toward the end of October, I don’t think we’ve not had a hurricane make landfall in the United States [this year].

We’ve had a remarkably calm season, contrary to all the predictions, but as you point out with Gustav, that really was the emergence of the true homeland defense mission that was still trying to form in those early days.

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