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New Thinking About Crime and Punishment

The guardian

Can a veteran prosecutor whip the Department of Homeland Security into shape? Michael Chertoff '78 has already started.

On Sept. 11, 2001, even before the attacks from the skies over the Eastern seaboard had ended, Michael Chertoff '78 was making some of the government's first critical decisions in reaction to what was turning out to be the worst criminal act in U.S. history. As head of the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice, it fell to Chertoff to lead the government's law enforcement efforts until the attorney general, John Ashcroft, could return from an out-of-town trip.

In those first few hours after the attacks, Chertoff, a career trial lawyer and prosecutor, got a brief look at what it's like to manage the response of a massive government bureaucracy made up of multiple law enforcement agencies during a national terrorist emergency. What he didn't realize was that he was also getting a first glimpse at his own future.

Michael Chertoff
Michael Chertoff '78 has taken the helm of a department plagued by organizational problems and bureaucratic challenges.

That future became clear earlier this year, when President Bush handed him the job of running the Department of Homeland Security, a sprawling conglomerate of 22 agencies and 180,000 employees tasked with guarding the nation against further attacks.

Chertoff has taken the helm of a department plagued by organizational problems and the bureaucratic challenges caused by consolidating so many disparate agencies under one roof. He arrived there on the heels of a report by DHS's former inspector general, Clark Kent Ervin '85, blasting the department for poor financial decisions, wrongheaded allocation of resources, inadequate precautions at the nation's ports and airports, and unsatisfactory integration of terrorist watch lists and databases from its component agencies.

In short, the challenges he faces are immense, as Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., bluntly reminded him at an April hearing.

"Were this agency admitted to an emergency room, it would be considered to be in extreme distress," Gregg said.

Chertoff's supporters say the patient is in good hands, and that the department will be well-served by his considerable experience as a trial lawyer known for intense, hard-nosed advocacy, occasional elbow-throwing and an inclination to question assumptions through searing cross-examination. He also brings vast knowledge of criminal law and procedure, including a strong awareness of the constitutional rights implicated by government surveillance, searches and seizures--things his department does every day.

But, as much as all of that will help him, the experience that he will draw on most, say observers who know him, is his service as the U.S. attorney for New Jersey and later as the top criminal lawyer at the Justice Department, where he learned to hammer out problems between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies sometimes known to compete as much as cooperate.

And, Chertoff's roots in the Justice Department may lessen the chances of a replay of some recent tensions between DHS and Justice. His predecessor, Tom Ridge, and former Attorney General Ashcroft were known to clash, most recently over information sharing and which agency should issue and announce terror alerts.

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