Defense Media Network

The Honorable Michael Chertoff, Former DHS Secretary Interview

How did the Katrina experience change you and how you led the department?

Certainly it consumed a huge amount of personal time because it was very frustrating to see things in the department that did not work well. As I’ve said a lot of times publicly, a lot of that had to do with lack of planning in advance, so it really gave me a very strong impetus to build a planning capability in the department.

The irony is that I gave a speech about a month before Katrina where I said I thought that one of the problems we had in the department is we didn’t have preparedness down right, we weren’t planning right. So I can’t say Katrina opened my eyes to it. What I can say is Katrina created a very strong emotional incentive to get it done right, to drive it to conclusion and we did drive it to conclusion.

We spent a huge amount of time pushing this issue, and I might also say the president spent a huge amount of personal time pushing to make sure that we prepared and took on board the lessons learned. It was the absolute obsessive focus on getting the planning job done that was the real legacy of Katrina.

It’s interesting that you talk about the planning legacy, because it just seems as we move further from 9/11 that you hear more and more persons echoing concerns about complacency. I’m curious as to your thoughts: Are we a Pearl Harbor nation? Does it take a major event or a major disaster to cause us to take dramatic actions that need to be done?

You know, that’s a very good question – “Are we a Pearl Harbor nation?” I really hope not. You know when I go out among members of the public, I’m constantly gratified and pleased by the fact that people come up and say, “Thank you for what you did,” and “You’ve kept the country safe,” not because it’s a personal compliment to me but because it shows people do think about this and do care about it. So I think the public is very well aware of what we went through. On the other hand, there are times I read things in the media, in which it’s hard to believe the author was in any way aware of the fact that we had an attack on September 11th. They act as if the threat is conjured-up and that worries me because you’re competing with a lot of other agenda items for investment.

I’m not saying we should put all our money in homeland security and nothing in anything else, but what I am saying is, whether it’s biological threats or issues involving Afghanistan, I do hear from some people the attitude: “Let’s move beyond 9/11.” The problem is the terrorists are not moving beyond 9/11. And let me say this: Even if Al Qaeda were completely eliminated tomorrow, it’s not going to end the problem.

There are other ideological groups and there’ll be ideologies in the future, maybe different than what we face now, that will model themselves on what we saw eight years ago, and will meet or exceed the kind of levels of violence that we’ve seen.

We’re in a world now where technology and global communications allow a smaller and smaller number of people to wage a kind of warfare that used to be the prerogative of a nation-state. Those days are never going to go away and we’ve got to not be panicked or hyper-anxious, but we have to have a disciplined program dealing with security in much the same way as we should have a disciplined program about maintaining our health or making sure that our fiscal house is in order.

What lessons do we still have to learn from 9/11 and Katrina?

I think the hardest lesson to learn is that the responsibility for security is not purely a government responsibility. It flows down even to the individual. When we saw in the hurricane seasons after Katrina people still not evacuating because they didn’t take on board the significance of voluntary evacuation when you have the capability of doing that; when you see people who fought against having secure identification because they don’t understand that knowing who gets on an airplane means we can keep dangerous people off; then what you worry about is people have the attitude that’s going to be taken care of by the government. The government’s not going to take care of all of it.

The government will take care of some of it, and there are some things only the government can do, but in modern life, whether it’s a natural disaster or an act of terror, an act of war, everybody’s on the front lines now. There is no rear area. There is no civilian domain. When we have terrorist attacks they go right in to the buildings, the airplanes, the civilian domains, and likewise the natural disasters put everybody on the front line.

Prev Page 1 2 3 4 5 Next Page


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