Chertoff reflective, defensive about his term

Friday - 12/19/2008, 8:21pm EST

By Max Cacas
FederalNewsRadio

We are now just one month and one day away from inauguration and the Bush administration's point man on homeland security is beginning to take stock of his five years safeguarding the nation.

In the past four years, DHS Secretary Michael Cherotoff has used his year-end speech as an opportunity to review progress at his agency. However, mindful that the days are dwindling down for him to head one of the biggest agencies in the federal government, Chertoff decided to do something different in a speech delivered in the historic Riggs Library at Georgetown University.

"I'm going to look back over the last five years," Chertoff said, "because its an opportunity for me to reflect on my tenure in the department."

In many ways, says Chertoff, the genesis for the Department of Homeland Security came from the aftermath of one of the worst calamities to befall this country, at least since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"It's well known that the president told Attorney General John Ashcroft several days after 9/11, 'Don't let this happen again.' And in many ways, the touchstone of the president's entire effort with respect to security is don't let this happen again."

On 9/11, Chertoff was still new as the head of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department. But Chertoff says the seeds of his involvement in what would become the Department of Homeland Security were sown as he struggled to make sense of what had been known about the attacks and the attackers:

At that time there was most notably a huge division between the intelligence-gathering function of the government and the law enforcement function. As head of the Criminal Division, for example, I was not permitted to know what was in the files of the FBI that had been gathered based on FISA-generated intelligence. That was forbidden to me. It was forbidden territory to me.

And I remember on September 11th, I was probably, other than Bob Mueller, the first senior Justice Department official at the Strategic Operations Center at the FBI on the fifth floor, and as we tried to put together who the hijackers were and what the plan was, I remember recognizing how little we knew about what we were facing.

And part of that was a reflection of my own situation, having been deliberately kept in the dark by the law, which forbade anybody on the intelligence side of the house to tell me anything they knew about terrorism.

It could not come over to me until we had reached a point that a case was ready to be prosecuted, and only then could I receive it and the intelligence gathering would be shut down.

I spent a moment on this because it's striking that we lived deliberately having put ourselves in the dark. And that reflection of those early hours, that there was much that we didn't know that we could have known I think has been part of what has animated me over the years I've worked on this.

Chertoff went on to recount the efforts to rid both the law enforcement and intelligence communities of the so-called "stove-pipes" that served as a wall keeping all the agencies from sharing information, and working as a team. A situation, Chertoff says, is now resolved with the passage of the Patriot Act, the first Homeland Security directives, the overhaul of the FBI, setting up the National Counterterrorism Center and , of course, the controversy over setting up the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Chertoff says since then, his department has faced monumental challenges on a daily basis:

The challenge of this department is enormous, and let me put it in some kind of context here. On an average single day, this department screens more than two million air travelers. We inspect more than 300,000 cars crossing the border. We check 70,000 shipping containers for dangerous materials at our ports, and we work with the private sector to secure thousands of pieces of critical infrastructure, whether they be bridges and dams or chemical plans and cyber systems.

Every day we rescue hundreds of people in danger or distress, and we naturalize more than 3,200 new American citizens and conduct 135,000 national background -- national security background checks during the course of a year.

Chertoff also took time to recount improvements at FEMA, in the wake of organization-wide failure after Hurricane Katrina, to the more successful outcomes of dealing with the California wildfire, Midwest floods, tornadoes as well as Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Chertoff seemed to be taking issue with those in the new administration and congress who want FEMA to be an independent agency again: