President Bush nominated federal appeals court judge Michael Chertoff yesterday to head the Department of Homeland Security, as the president turned to a former prosecutor to run the mammoth agency tasked with preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
After his first nominee for the job, former New York police commissioner Bernard B. Kerik, was forced to withdraw, Bush's decision to pick Chertoff was applauded by many Democrats, who predicted a quick confirmation by the Senate. Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) called Chertoff "one of the most able people and public servants I have ever known."
Chertoff, 51, ran the criminal division of the Justice Department for the first three years of Bush's tenure and was instrumental in overseeing the administration's legal response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some critics charge that Chertoff trampled on the civil liberties of individuals while prosecuting a legal war on terrorism at Justice.
"Mike has shown a deep commitment to the cause of justice and an unwavering determination to protect the American people," Bush told reporters yesterday morning. "Mike has also been a key leader in the war on terror."
The agency that Chertoff would inherit from Tom Ridge faces challenges on nearly every one of its high-priority fronts. The department, a collection of 22 preexisting agencies, is under criticism for what many experts say is a failure to address significant security gaps, such as protecting U.S. chemical plants and ports, securing the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, and helping first responders to prepare for attacks.
Some domestic defense specialists have concluded that the department is severely underfunded and understaffed in many of its key functions and has lost turf battles with other agencies. One result is that the department lacks a leadership role in some policy areas in which many outsiders had expected it to be preeminent, such as in assembling terrorist watch lists.
With the selection of Chertoff, Bush is nearing completion of one of the most dramatic reorganizations of a Cabinet for a second-term presidency. Bush has accepted -- or requested -- the resignation of most Cabinet secretaries and replaced them with a notably loyal and diverse team. If confirmed, Chertoff will become the only Jewish member of Bush's second-term Cabinet.
Bush still must appoint a director of national intelligence, an Environmental Protection Agency chief and a U.S. trade representative, as well as a few senior White House policy advisers. Retired Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks is considered a top candidate to become the first-ever director of national intelligence, but, as Bush demonstrated with his surprise selection of Chertoff, only a small and tight-lipped group of White House officials has any clue about the president's short list.
Although he had not been mentioned publicly, Chertoff has been on Bush's radar screen since well before the Kerik debacle, according to a senior White House official. But some in the White House thought Chertoff would be reluctant to forfeit his seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia -- a position to which Bush appointed him in 2003. Moreover, Bush was closer to Kerik and was convinced by former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and others that the former police commissioner was the right choice.
Kerik was forced to withdraw amid revelations that he may have failed to pay taxes for a nanny working illegally in the United States and may have engaged in other improper -- and possibly illegal -- actions while working in New York.
Chertoff is seen as a safe pick because he has been confirmed by the Senate three times for government positions -- first as U.S. attorney, then as assistant attorney general and, finally, as a judge less than two years ago. "Judge Mike Chertoff has the résumé to be an excellent homeland security secretary, given his law enforcement background and understanding of New York and America's neglected security needs," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
Still, Chertoff's confirmation hearings will not be without controversy, according to Senate Democratic sources, who said some Democrats plan to challenge Bush's terrorism-prevention policies, as well as the performance of the Department of Homeland Security in its first two years of existence. In some ways, they said, Chertoff will be treated the same way as Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush's attorney general nominee, who has been grilled by Democrats over his involvement in preparing the administration's legal strategy for the war on terrorism, but has never been seriously challenged over being confirmed.
The American Civil Liberties Union said Chertoff's public record suggests that "he sees the Bill of Rights as an obstacle to national security, rather than a guidebook for how to do security properly."
Chertoff told reporters that he would "devote all my energy to promoting our homeland security and, as important, to preserving our fundamental liberties."
In his May 2003 confirmation hearings for the federal bench, Chertoff was asked by Senate Democrats to explain how the USA Patriot Act, which expanded government surveillance powers, did not encroach on the freedom of ordinary Americans. In the end, Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was the only senator to oppose Chertoff's nomination, and her concerns were not about Sept. 11 policies but rather about Chertoff's role as the Senate Republicans' chief counsel in the Whitewater investigation of the 1990s.
Chertoff was counsel to the Senate committee that investigated then-President Bill Clinton's land dealings. Sen. Clinton told reporters yesterday that she will reserve judgment on his nomination for homeland security until the two of them sit down and discuss his record.
Chertoff is likely to face questions about his credentials for running a 180,000-person agency. Unlike Ridge, who was governor of Pennsylvania before taking control of the department, Chertoff has limited management experience, chiefly in running the criminal division of the Justice Department.
"In the days after September 11, Mike helped trace the terrorist attacks to the al Qaeda network," Bush said. "He understood immediately that the strategy in the war on terror is to prevent attacks before they occur."
Officials also announced that Fran Townsend, the White House's homeland security adviser and one of the people mentioned for the homeland security post, will stay in her job.
Staff writer John Mintz contributed to this report.