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Michael Chertoff looks back on Homeland Security years

The former department chief, who has a book due out, talks about America's safety, counter-terrorism and the threats of the 21st century.

August 30, 2009|Sebastian Rotella

WASHINGTON — Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who has a new book out this week, warned in an interview that national security will suffer if counter-terrorism warriors fear that bosses will second-guess their front-line actions after the fact.

Chertoff said his book, "Homeland Security: Assessing the First Five Years," lays out an architecture for defending the nation against the threats of the 21st century.

As Homeland Security chief from 2005 through the end of the Bush administration, Chertoff oversaw 218,000 employees and a $50-billion budget. He was head of the Justice Department's criminal division from 2001 to 2003, during which time he led the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks and prosecutions of cases including the Enron scandal.

Dressed casually and speaking in rapid-fire sentences, he spoke with a reporter in the offices of his security consulting company, the Chertoff Group. The following is an edited account of the interview.

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Making the headlines these days are such issues as shutting down the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and possible prosecutions of CIA interrogators.

Some critics, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, say such moves make America less safe. Where do you stand?

What we owe the people who are at the point of the spear is certainty. Right after 9/11 . . . there was a lot of criticism about prior timidity in being too lawyered up and too cautious about killing [Osama] bin Laden. . . . Now, I think you'd be fair to say as an agent: I should be as nonaggressive as possible. . . . Unfortunately that's the message coming out. . . . People will take the most risk-averse option. And of course the country won't be safe.

And if you think the country should tolerate that, that's a fair argument. But you've got to be clear about it and . . . if it turns out that something happens as a result and Americans get killed, then you have to take responsibility.

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You don't talk much in the book about detention or interrogation issues. There's a lot of criticism that there was excess and abuse during the George W. Bush administration. How do you feel about that looking back?

I think it's a reasonable criticism to say that we in the last administration took too long to get these military commissions and processes up and running. By waiting a long time to get that done, it kind of soured the process.

On the other hand, I have to say, Congress has shown no interest in actually writing a set of rules and laws that would govern the problem of people who can't be prosecuted in a criminal court, maybe can't be prosecuted in a military commission, but are clearly too dangerous to release.

I spent four years working real hard to keep people who were trained in Al Qaeda camps from coming into the country. The idea that we [might] bring them in and let them go is not a happy prospect.

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In addition to terrorism, you write about this idea of groups like the Mexican cartels or the Central American Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gang that have a destabilizing capacity.

When you deal with groups like the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] or MS-13 or some of the cartels along the northern part of Mexico, they are almost at the level of acting in a political way. They use violence for political purposes; they do threaten the stability of at least the local authorities.

If you look at Venezuela, that's a great example of the confluence of Hezbollah, Iran, Venezuela, the FARC -- all these actors have found each other, and the traditional line between what's criminal and what's war and the national defense has really eroded. . . . [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez has made a deliberate decision to set himself up against the United States. . . . He has aligned himself with non-state actors . . . and so there we see the entire spectrum of basically a unity of effort on the part of both a state actor that's hostile to the U.S. and non-state actors who are hostile to the U.S. and/or interested in criminal activity. That to me is unfortunately the wave of the future.

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sebastian.rotella@latimes.com

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