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. (Published 11/21/2005)
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."
Chertoff and a senior aide have cited three different times as the point when an interagency crisis management group began meeting in Washington. In television interviews and in House testimony, Chertoff has said he was told about the key event in the flooding of New Orleans -- the irreparable breach of the city's levee system -- at midday Aug. 30, overnight Aug. 29 and, most recently, the morning of Aug. 30.
"I believe this was less about the efficacy of the plan, and more about the lack of execution of the plan," former deputy homeland security secretary and retired Navy Adm. James Loy said recently.
Chertoff has survived with political capital intact in part because of Brown's spectacular fall and President Bush's acceptance of responsibility for the response to the hurricane, members of Congress and analysts said.
Chertoff was in the "wrong spot at the wrong time," said Alan Capps, editor of the Journal of Homeland Security and analyst at the ANSER institute for homeland security. But, Capps added, the secretary's job, tough to begin with, "has just been made more complicated. . . . In this town, you know everybody is gunning for you right now."
In an interview in his offices at a former Navy base in Northwest Washington, Chertoff displayed the command of facts and the stand-up demeanor that wins him admirers in both parties. His diagnosis of what went wrong with the Katrina response is focused and analytical, as is his self-assessment.
"I'm not a politician. I make no bones about the fact that there are people who are terrific about . . . emoting publicly. But actually in this job I think what people want is candor and honesty. What I owe them is a feeling that I am giving them the best information I can," he said.
"I'm prepared to push the envelope on getting stuff done. I'm not going to break the law," he said. "I am disciplined about what I do. . . . But I am fast. I don't think I'm excessively a hankie-twister in decision making."
Chertoff's penchant for action has spurred controversy before. As the Justice Department's No. 3 official, he helped lead its aggressive crackdown against terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks, overseeing the roundup of 762 foreign nationals for immigration violations. None was charged with terrorism-related crimes. The department's inspector general concluded that a "no bond" policy led to lengthy delays in their release, and some faced "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse" while incarcerated.
Chertoff offers no apology. He said failures that led to the Katrina response, such as those surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks, reinforce his charge to mend the Homeland Security Department.
"Nine-eleven woke us up about the need to prevent and get our intelligence right. Katrina woke us up about the need to get prepared," Chertoff said. "The passion that everybody feels after Katrina will be a help in getting this done quickly."
Chertoff blames information gaps and lack of detailed advance planning for Katrina flaws. "The first report from the battlefield is almost always wrong," he said. "That was a great frustration to me. I hate being inaccurate." He added, "The one lesson you have to take away from this . . . [is] to balance the desire to do something very fast against the desire to make sure, before you make a decision."
Chertoff has promised Congress that he will remake FEMA's emergency logistics, communications and operations systems, and leadership, citing high-volume and rapidly expandable business and military models.
More broadly, the focus on his department may be strengthening Chertoff's hand, analysts said. Congress recently passed a $31 billion budget, including many structural changes Chertoff proposed this summer despite objections, chiefly by Democrats, that he would gut FEMA.
Chertoff acknowledged that a 420-page national disaster plan unveiled this winter after two years of work is insufficient. "The National Response Plan is a good plan from a process standpoint. It tells you who should speak to who. . . . That is not a substitute for what I call a substantive plan, which is, 'Okay, what roads do people take to get out?' "
Chertoff also acknowledged that state emergency managers "have a legitimate concern" that the department may have focused excessively on terrorism and biological, nuclear and chemical attacks instead of natural disasters.
Chertoff said he and Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson have been "stretched" by having to perform multiple jobs, partly because of the slow pace of Senate confirmation of appointees. He singled out Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), although not by name, for delaying appointments as a protest over being denied a secret May 2004 e-mail from FBI agents about the questioning of terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"If it takes weeks and months to confirm people . . . and if they get held because someone is sore that they didn't get a document," Chertoff said, "that means the deputy and I were here 'home alone' for a long period of time."
While, the Defense Department struggled for 40 years after its creation to merge rival military branches, Chertoff said, "we have to do this a lot quicker. I know we will not accomplish everything we want to accomplish. But if we can move forward significantly, then . . . even if it was not always the most pleasant experience from a personal standpoint, or the easiest, it was worth doing."