Chertoff gets high marks for reassurance after attacks

Homeland Security

Bombings In London

July 09, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff turned up at a bustling Union Station at rush hour yesterday morning, ready to reassure Americans shaken by the London bus and subway bombings that the government was doing all it could to keep U.S. commuters safe.

"We manage the risk, we take prudent steps, but we don't let it interfere with our daily lives," he said on CBS' Early Show.

Not exactly warm and fuzzy words for an anxious nation.

But they were typical of the message of blunt reassurance and quiet control that Chertoff has telegraphed in the aftermath of the London strikes, as he emerged as the public face of the Bush administration in response to the incident.

Chertoff, the wiry and intense former judge who took the helm of the agency six months ago, held a midday news conference on the day of the bombings in which he gave a businesslike run-down of U.S. security precautions, concluding that "this is not an occasion for undue anxiety."

He was a constant presence on network and cable morning TV shows yesterday - performances he is scheduled to reprise with back-to-back appearances on the Sunday talk shows tomorrow.

The London attacks cast a sudden spotlight on a U.S. intelligence system in the throes of reorganization and also on President Bush's revamped anti-terror team, facing its first major terrorist event of his new term.

Nowhere was the glare brighter than on Chertoff, who has kept mostly out of sight since winning confirmation in January, working to gain control of a department that was widely criticized as unwieldy, disorganized and ineffectual under its first leader, Tom Ridge.

Chertoff's actions this week earned him high marks from homeland security analysts, who said his calm demeanor and confident approach put Americans at ease at an edgy time.

The former mob prosecutor gained a solid reputation long ago for his keen intellect, sharp analytical skills and tough approach to fighting crime. But until this week, few suspected his talent for the comforting sound bite.

`A communicator'

"People have been surprised at how good a communicator Secretary Chertoff has been," said David Heyman, a homeland security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Everybody is very impressed with him, because he's a quick study, he's extremely smart, and he's decisive. That inspires confidence."

Chertoff cuts a distinctly different figure from his predecessor. Ridge, a career politician who had served in Congress and as governor of Pennsylvania, was picked by Bush to put a reassuring public face on the fledgling Department of Homeland Security, formed in 2003 with the merger of 22 agencies and 180,000 employees.

Instead, Ridge drew barbs for what critics called a failure to gain control over the sprawling bureaucracy. Perhaps worse, he was often ridiculed for his creation and use of a color-coded alert system that the public found confusing, alarming and of questionable value.

Chertoff, 51, was virtually unknown outside government circles when he was nominated to succeed Ridge in January. He was regarded as a safe, competent and confirmable choice after the embarrassment that Bush suffered when his first choice, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard B. Kerik, withdrew amid numerous questions about his background and his employment of a woman he believed might be an illegal alien.

Relative obscurity

Until this week, Chertoff had toiled in relative obscurity in a small office at the department's campus in a leafy section of northwest Washington, surrounded by an inner circle made up partly of trusted colleagues from his days as head of the criminal division at the Justice Department.

Chertoff's efforts to bring greater focus to the department's role in security crises was on display this week.

He made it clear in the immediate aftermath of the bombings that his was the central agency coordinating the U.S. response to the London attacks. His decision to raise the national threat-level to orange, or "high," only for mass transit showed a determination not to overreact to the incident, analysts said.

"What you saw was a change in the Homeland Security Department's status," said Paul Light, a federal bureaucracy specialist at New York University. "There was no question that Chertoff was in charge, and that Department of Homeland Security was the point of contact. It was a very assertive position for Chertoff."

The performance was vintage Chertoff, say former colleagues, who praise his ability to home in on the core of a problem amid a clamor of information and competing interests, then remain focused and convinced of his course once he decides on it.

"Mike is confident - he doesn't get flustered," said Matthew Martens, who worked closely with Chertoff in the private sector and at the Department of Justice. "He's unflappable."

Some critics say that despite Chertoff's confidence-inspiring approach this week, he still faces enormous challenges in improving the nation's domestic security.

Chertoff's next big test could come next week, when he's scheduled to unveil plans for revamping his department.

Chertoff is "a very able administrator, but he is faced with almost insurmountable problems in getting this Hydra under control," said Michael Greenberger, a former Justice Department counterterrorism official who directs the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security. "He's trying to do it internally through head-knocking and real attention to detail, but there hasn't been a lot of improvement."

His actions in the past several days have been mostly "closing the barn door after the horse is out," Greenberger added.

Skeptics are watching for Chertoff's midcourse review to see "how he designs this, and if it will work," said Randall Larsen, director of the Institute of Homeland Security. Equally important, for a nonpolitician like Chertoff, "Can [he] sell it to Congress?"

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