A 'Unified Command Structure' in Search of a Leader

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

As Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff sat down for lunch yesterday on the seventh floor of the Heritage Foundation, a vivid scene from the post-9/11 world was unfolding outside the conference-room window.

Two blocks away at Union Station, a small grease fire had erupted on the grill at McDonald's. The blaze was quickly extinguished, but not before jittery security personnel ordered the terminal evacuated. Hundreds of shoppers, diners and rail passengers, heeding shouted warnings to flee the premises, flowed into the plaza outside, where emergency response vehicles joined the usual duck boats and tourist trolleys.

Chertoff aides watched the mayhem from the Heritage windows, but Chertoff himself missed the hullabaloo; one of his lunch partners explained that his security guards had ordered the blinds drawn.

It was just as well -- the secretary has enough crises to worry about these days.

A year after he took over from Tom Ridge at Homeland Security, Chertoff is getting much of the blame for the woeful Hurricane Katrina response, insufficient supervision of the Dubai port deal and domestic defenses that remain, by most accounts, unacceptably weak.

Earlier this month, the conservative magazine Human Events quoted administration officials as saying that Chertoff had "only a few days left" in the Cabinet. The White House denied it, but the rumors -- and calls for his head -- continue.

Yesterday, an hour before Chertoff addressed the International Association of Fire Fighters at the Hyatt on Capitol Hill, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) won vigorous applause from the firefighters for demanding Chertoff's ouster for his role in a "dangerously incompetent" administration.

All of this must have Chertoff, a former star prosecutor and top Justice Department official, wondering why he gave up his seat as a federal appellate judge for a position that earns him -- deservedly or not -- unending criticism.

"You gave up a lifetime appointment for this?" Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) marveled to Chertoff at a Senate hearing last month at which the secretary was getting abuse over Katrina.

"My wife reminds me of that periodically," Chertoff replied, ruefully.

Chertoff's problem is not, as Biden suggests, that he's incompetent. The secretary is highly accomplished. His problem, if anything, is he's a model technocrat in a position that sometimes demands a commanding leader.

A strikingly thin man with a high-pitched voice, pointy ears and droopy eyelids, Chertoff speaks of "the critical points of triangulation" and calls for a "properly risk-managed approach to critical infrastructure." He talks about the need for "total assets visibility" and favors "an integrated, sensible, systems-based approach." He desires "better information about the constituents of the supply chain." And instead of telling people that he's protecting them, he says that his department has "done a lot to elevate the general baseline of security in this country."

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