Defense Media Network

The Honorable Michael Chertoff, Former DHS Secretary Interview

You’ve known DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano from your previous work together at the Justice Department, and it was obvious from the moment that she was named there was a great deal of comfort and confidence that you had in her taking on the reins of the department following you. What was it about her that gave you the comfort level in her taking your job, and what were some of the things that you offered as far as guideposts for her in taking it on?

First of all, I’ve known her for 15 years or more. We were prosecutors together and U.S. attorneys together. I know her to be smart, I know her to be committed to security as a law enforcement person. I knew she was a governor. I knew that she knew the issues and cared about the issues and most important, was tough-minded enough that she could prepare to do what had to be done. The one thing about the job of secretary of Homeland Security is you’re going to have to make decisions and a lot of them, and you have to be tough-minded about making them. So that made me feel she was a very good choice for the job. We also put into a place a very detailed transition plan, which I think worked very well.

My personal advice, which I will keep personal to her, had to do more with the kind of unique perspective of the secretary. What does it mean to be responsible under HSPD 5 [Homeland Security Policy Directive 5 deals with management of domestic incidents] for coordinating response across the entire government? What does that mean in practical terms? What does it mean to deal with your Cabinet colleagues? What does it mean to deal with Congress? Those are things which only the personal perspective of the secretary can lend. So it was that kind of personal advice that I gave.

If you could, what policy or program would you like to see changed to better advance the homeland mission?

There’s been a lot of continuity, so in one way I have to say there’s not one particular thing I can single out. I know Real ID is still in the balance, and I think we’re going to need to drive the ability to have a secure form of identification that’s used to get into airplanes or do whatever else we require knowing something about the people coming into or being in a particular location. So I’d like to make sure we’re committed to getting that done, I’d like to see we’re committed to getting the work under way on the issue of bioterrorism and I’d like to see us continue to implement a cyber security strategy.

Last question. What were the greatest lessons you learned from being secretary?

I guess I have to say in some ways, I probably dealt with more crises as secretary than in any other job. But I also have to say I was on duty as head of Criminal Division on 9/11, and that was certainly a crisis too, and I was there during Enron, and that was a crisis. I guess the lessons I learned were probably most in the area of crisis management.

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.

First, as I said, planning.

Second, investing in building capacity so that when you do need to deploy something and you flip the switch, the light comes on. You can have a great plan but if you don’t have the capacity you’re not going to execute.

Then I have to say, I find people consistently underestimate the gravity of a crisis. I don’t know whether it’s a psychological defense mechanism or a desire not to look like you’re unduly panicked or overreacting, but I find that people have a tendency – and I don’t care whether it’s a legal crisis, a natural disaster, or an act of terror – the first response I see almost uniformly is to downplay it. It’s almost like you’re in disbelief, and in my experience, over and over, I don’t know how many crises I’ve dealt with of every kind it is you actually have to fight against that impulse, because more often than not, you’re going to start off by doing too little rather than too much. At the close call, you’re always better off doing a little more than you need rather than doing a little less.

Is that something that really came to light for you based upon the Katrina experience?

Yeah, but not just Katrina. I’ve seen it with all the natural disasters, I’ve seen it with various kinds of terrorist plots and things of that sort we had to deal with, and then going back to dealing with some of the issues I had when I was at the Department of Justice, looking at 9/11. There I think everybody understood it was a big deal, but even look at some of the ways people reacted to the financial crisis, the Enron case, other cases.

Once you’ve got the plan and the capabilities, you need to act forcefully and dramatically to make sure that you change momentum in the situation. I’ve been in too many meetings where people are almost paralyzed, and they say, “Well maybe we really don’t need to do this. Maybe that’s too much.” I’ve even seen it in exercises too.

Now what I’ve learned having gone through a lot of these, your first impulse – “Maybe we don’t need to do it” – is not always, but more often than not, not correct, and that you’re better off doing a little more than you think you need, rather than doing less than you think you need.

This interview first appeared in Faircount Media Group’s The Year in Homeland Security, 2009 Edition.

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