Correction to This Article
A Nov. 14 article about Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina misidentified the service branch of former department deputy secretary James M. Loy. He is a retired Coast Guard admiral.

After the Storm, Chertoff Vows to Reshape DHS

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 14, 2005

As a lawyer who rose quickly from federal prosecutor to Senate Whitewater counsel to assistant U.S. attorney general before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff encountered all kinds of opposing counsel.

Some were flamboyant. Some were histrionic. Some "would cry in front of the jury," he recalled.

"My style was always very straightforward and very simple. . . . Here's what I know. Here's what I don't know. If I've made a mistake I'll admit it," Chertoff, 51, said in an interview in his spartan offices, barely furnished after eight months on the job. "I will make mistakes, but I aspire not to make the same mistake again."

Two months after Hurricane Katrina leveled the Gulf Coast and laid bare the nation's poor preparedness for disasters of that magnitude, Chertoff's pledge to learn from failure is being tested. His shaky public performance in the days after the Aug. 29 storm and subsequent investigations have raised questions among critics and supporters on Capitol Hill about the secretary's leadership and his initial command of the federal response.

Met with bipartisan praise when he quit a lifetime federal appeals judgeship to become secretary in February, Chertoff now faces complaints that the skills that distinguished him as a judge and a prosecutor -- a sharp intellect and a taste for the jugular when fighting the mob, corruption or terrorism -- suit him less well in his new executive role. Hired to change a dysfunctional, demoralized department and focused on weapons of mass destruction, Chertoff instead ran into Katrina, the nation's greatest domestic crisis since 2001. By many accounts, he stumbled in his first big test.

The hurricane response forced Chertoff into an unfamiliar role in front of the television cameras, where his command presence was eclipsed by those of governors and generals. It was a politician's job that Tom Ridge, a former governor and Chertoff's predecessor, would have been comfortable taking on, people who have worked with both men said. Reviews of the lawyerly and severe-looking Chertoff, even from staunch backers, were not glowing.

"Throughout Katrina, it didn't appear as if the federal government understood the need to be able to inform the public on a regular and timely basis about what was happening," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a Chertoff ally.

"I have not been impressed with anything new that he's brought to the department that's proven to work. . . . The problems that were pre-Chertoff are still there," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), ranking Democrat on the same committee. "You don't get the feeling that the leadership is of the caliber necessary to really move Homeland Security to the robust, real-time agency that it has to be."

Chertoff has responded by redoubling his push to reshape the 180,000-worker department. Still, analysts say, his biggest challenges remain a shortage of qualified leaders, short tenures and high turnover among top positions. That is reflected in the Katrina response as well as a recent survey showing that morale in the department is among the lowest in government, according to a survey conducted by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that promotes government service.

Specific criticism has focused on Chertoff's role as the lead federal officer under a new national disaster response plan, his management of senior personnel such as former FEMA director Michael D. Brown, and his shifting public statements after the storm about events in New Orleans and Washington.

After seeming at first to dismiss reports of human misery as rumored or exaggerated and praising FEMA's performance as "excellent," Chertoff recalled Brown, his "battlefield commander," from New Orleans.

House Republicans last month grilled Chertoff about waiting nearly 36 hours, until Aug. 30, to declare Katrina an "incident of national significance," the highest designation under the national response plan. After the storm, Chertoff traveled to Atlanta to make a previously scheduled announcement regarding avian flu and as late as Sept. 1 attended an American Red Cross fair to kick off "National Preparedness Month."

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