WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday tapped federal appellate judge Michael Chertoff, a zealous former prosecutor who helped craft the nation's legal strategy for combating terrorism, to lead the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, calling him "a practical organizer, a skilled manager and a brilliant thinker."
Bush's choice was a surprise. Chertoff was not known to be in the running for the Cabinet post. Moreover, managing a fledgling bureaucracy that spans 22 agencies and employs 180,000 federal workers constitutes a daunting task for a man known for his legal credentials, not his management skills.
Currently a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, Chertoff served as assistant U.S. attorney general from 2001 to 2003, heading the Justice Department's criminal division and spearheading the effort to use the law against terrorism in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
His efforts, critics said, sometimes bruised the Constitution. Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, in an interview yesterday called Chertoff "one of the architects of many of the policies to abridge civil rights and civil liberties adopted after 9/11."
At a White House ceremony, Bush praised Chertoff's "deep commitment to the cause of justice" and his "unwavering determination to protect the American people," calling him "a key leader in the war on terror."
Chertoff, 51, pledged to "devote all my energy to preserving our homeland security and, as important, to preserving our fundamental liberties."
He represents the president's second stab at replacing former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as Homeland Security secretary. Bush's first choice, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard B. Kerik, withdrew last month after questions were raised about his background and his employment of a woman he believed might be an illegal alien as a housekeeper.
Bush seemed to have the embarrassing Kerik episode in mind when he said near the beginning of his brief remarks that Chertoff "has been confirmed by the Senate three times."
Chertoff, the son of a prominent rabbi, spent his childhood in suburban New Jersey. He holds undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard. He was a mob-fighting federal prosecutor in New York under Rudolph W. Giuliani and a U.S. attorney in New Jersey, where his office won a number of high-profile political corruption cases, including the prosecution of Jersey City Mayor Gerald McCann.
Giuliani, an enthusiastic advocate of Kerik, then his business partner, for the Homeland Security post, called Chertoff "an excellent choice" and a person with "a broad and unique range of experience in dealing with terrorism." Giuliani, a former New York mayor, was U.S. attorney in New York when Chertoff worked for him.
Civil liberties groups reacted with concern to the appointment. In a statement, Gregory T. Nojeim of the ACLU's Washington office said Chertoff should be "questioned aggressively" in Senate confirmation hearings about his commitment to the Bill of Rights.
"He has been a vocal champion of the Bush administration's pervasive belief that the executive branch should be free of many of the checks and balances that keep it from abusing its immense power over our lives and liberty," Nojeim said.
After leaving Justice, Chertoff, in an appearance at the University of North Carolina law school, seemed to soften his views on holding terrorism suspects.
"We need to debate a long-term and sustainable architecture for the process of determining when, why and for how long someone may be detained as an enemy combatant, and what judicial review should be available," he said in October 2003, according to news accounts.
Representatives from several civil liberties groups said yesterday that they were cautiously optimistic in light of those comments.
Viet Dinh, a Georgetown University law professor who was assistant attorney general for legal policy while Chertoff was heading the criminal division, said that "it is different when you are inside the Department of Justice and working to present those views" than when you leave the administration's ranks.
But Dinh, who like Chertoff helped to fashion the USA Patriot Act and other counterterrorism measures, added in an interview yesterday that "none of our views have changed."
Early reaction to the appointment from Capitol Hill ranged from cautiously favorable to overwhelmingly positive, with a Democratic senator, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, highly enthusiastic. He called Chertoff "one of the most able people and public servants I have ever known."
In a statement issued from Sri Lanka, where he was inspecting damage from the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunamis, Corzine said, "As U.S. attorney, his long hours and unending commitment to the job and the citizens of New Jersey were legendary."
Corzine also praised Chertoff for helping the New Jersey legislature investigate racial profiling.