"Everyone was shifting on the fly," said Andrew C. McCarthy, who was a senior federal prosecutor in New York at the time. "We didn't know if we'd get hit again the next day. I don't understand the criticism, truly. We didn't break laws and we protected the nation. It was the Justice Department's finest hour."
A masterful trial lawyer, Chertoff has not hesitated to step into court and defend controversial new policies. (The Weekly Standard appraised his courtroom style in 1996 and concluded he "can make smart people look stupid.") Last year, Chertoff argued in a secret hearing in federal appeals court that Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks, did not have a Sixth Amendment right to cross-examine al Qaeda leaders held overseas. Chertoff took the position that national security trumped Moussaoui's right to confront his accusers.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit handed Chertoff a partial victory, agreeing that Moussaoui instead could read transcripts of witness testimony. The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Few of Chertoff's friends expressed surprise at his decision to leave a lifetime federal judgeship to try to bring order to an unwieldy agency. "If you looked at his bookshelves, there are a lot of biographies of people who shuttled in and out of public life," said John F. Savarese, who worked with Chertoff as a federal prosecutor in New York City in the 1980s and remains a friend.
"There's nothing sloppy about Michael -- he likes to win," Savarese added. "As my kids would say, you could classify him as a nerd. He lives and breathes and thinks this stuff, but I wouldn't want to get in his way at Homeland Security."
The son of a prominent and politically connected rabbi from Elizabeth, N.J., Chertoff graduated from Harvard College in 1975 and Harvard Law School in 1978, where he became the model for an argumentative and intense young student in classmate Scott Turow's book "One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School."
He joined U.S. Attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani's office in New York in the mid-1980s. He developed an intimidating, Gatling-gun courtroom style and was so controlled and focused on his work that he sometimes did not notice when someone extended a handshake. As he told the American Lawyer: "You could set off a bomb in the court and I might not know it."
Appointed lead prosecutor on the "Mafia Commission" case, Chertoff sent several mob aristocrats to prison. Even the made men gave grudging respect to the young prosecutor. Told that Chertoff had been appointed top deputy to the New Jersey U.S. attorney, Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno buttonholed a police sergeant.
"You give him a little message from Fat Tony," Salerno said. "You tell that [expletive] he owes me a thank-you note."
Chertoff's political epiphany came a few years later. In 1990, the U.S. attorney resigned and Chertoff applied for the permanent job. But Lawrence Bathgate, a prominent Republican power broker in New Jersey, balked at awarding the legal plum to Chertoff, who had only recently changed his registration from independent to Republican.
"He was not politically active and I didn't know him," said Bathgate, a major fundraiser for Bush. "I would have had doubts about anyone I didn't know."
During breakfast with Chertoff, Bathgate learned the prosecutor's father was a friend of Republican New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean. The mood lightened.
"I would say that while Mike is not a backslapper . . . he's a far more skilled politician than people realize," said Robert Mintz, who served as assistant U.S. attorney under Chertoff in New Jersey. "He is very skilled at maneuvering in political circles."
Chertoff was reappointed by President Bill Clinton and led a series of high-profile prosecutions before returning to private practice in 1994. But two years later, he agreed to serve as chief counsel to the Senate Whitewater committee under Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.). During the hearings, Chertoff inquired about the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. and subjected the Clintons' friend Susan Thomases to a withering cross-examination.