A Conversation with Michael Chertoff

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Council on Foreign Relations

TOM BROKAW:  Good afternoon, and welcome.  Always happy to see such a robust turnout for one of the most critical issues facing us all today.   

A reminder, as you know from your past attendance at these occasions, the council has its version of a prenuptial agreement. You’re to turn off your cell phones and pagers.  We’d also like to remind you that this is on the record today, which is an exception for these occasions, and it will be broadcast via the live webcast.  When the occasion comes after the secretary’s remarks for questions from the audience, I’ll recognize you.  If you would wait then for the microphone, and identify yourself and your association with the council or the organization that you’re here representing. 

Michael Chertoff is an honors graduate of Harvard University and its law school, of course.  He left a lifetime and secure seat on the  Federal Appeals Court to become secretary of Homeland Security last year.  He went from being a distinguished jurist on the bench, in which all people would rise when he entered a room, to becoming a human pinata in the news over the course of the last year. (Laughter.)  He runs the largest government agency that has been created in our lifetime out of 22 separate agencies.  It has 170,000 employees.  It remains, I think fair to say, in its construct and in its assignment—and in its execution of its assignment a work in progress while it attempts to deal with everything from the possibility of another terrorist attack in this country, to the possibility of an avian flu pandemic in America, to natural disasters, to issues of immigration. 

Mr. Secretary, it’s great to have you here today.  We look forward to your remarks.  And because this is on the record, and I can assure you that the people who are here are enlightened citizens representing a broad spectrum of life not only in this city but the Eastern seaboard, we hope that we can use this occasion to generate, I think, a critically needed national dialogue on the issues that bring you to us. 

So welcome to the council.  (Applause.) 

SECRETARY MICHAEL CHERTOFF:  Tom, thank you for that introduction.  I want to thank Richard Haass, the president, for inviting me here, and everybody who greeted me.   

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff with Council
Senior Fellow for National Security Studies and meeting presider
and Council member Tom Brokaw.

I want to apologize because I am recovering from a cold, so you’re not hearing my wonderful voice in its natural state. (Laughter.)  On the other hand, that may minimize the amount of talking I do and maximize the amount of listening, so maybe that’s a good thing. 

Now, I’m here as the secretary of Homeland Security.  And it might strike some people as ironic that the secretary of Homeland Security is speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations.  But actually, what we do in our department, in virtually every element of the 22 agencies that have come together to form the department, touches international affairs and foreign relations in virtually every respect.   

We have 183,000 employees.  We’ve got 1,500 of them currently deployed overseas full-time.  They’re doing everything from strengthening our cargo security, to stopping the trafficking in human beings, to preventing counterfeiting of our intellectual property and goods, and of course, ensuring the safety of our international travel. We have CBP inspectors in China; TSA—Transportation Security Administration representatives in Singapore; Coast Guard officers in Japan; ICE agents in Thailand; and Secret Service agents in Hong Kong. The fact of the matter is, just as charity begins at home, security begins overseas.  Although our borders obviously are defined by our national sovereignty, our security has to be defined by a network of relationships, security relationships, that we establish with our partners, both public and private, all over the world.   

In fact, we bring to this not only the skills and the dedication of the people who are part of this department, but a unique competitive advantage that the free world has over the world of terror and the world of darkness, and that is our technology and our ingenuity.  The fact of the matter is that in the war against terror, the trump card that we have is our ability to use our creativity to develop, to pilot, and to put into play the kinds of technology systems that increase our level of security without compromising either our freedom or our economic system. 

Now, I’m about to leave on a trip overseas to Asia, which will be the first extended trip I take since I became secretary of Homeland Security, and I believe will be the first trip any secretary from my department has taken to China and Japan and Singapore.  And I’m doing this because I want to see firsthand the technology, tools and methods that we are using and that our Asian partners are using overseas to enhance security while maintaining free trade.  Hopefully we can learn from each others’ experiences and further cement the network of relationships which is pivotal to our elevating security all across the globe.  

So what I thought I would do in my time here is talk a little bit about some of the issues I will be addressing in the trip to Asia, and some of the priorities for the department going forward. 

I want to begin by saying the philosophical basis for everything that we do is risk management.  And I’ve said that at pretty much every speech I’ve given, and usually people nod, and sometimes they applaud.  It sounds simple, it sounds absolutely correct, it sounds easy—but that’s in theory.  In practice, I will tell you that risk management is difficult, not because the discipline of assessing risk and managing it is difficult, but because there is, in fact, when you apply risk management in  individual cases, a tremendous amount of resistance. 

Although I think we all understand in our heads that we have to manage and prioritize risk, and we do that in our daily lives—we all decide, for example, that we will take prudent risks getting into the car and going to work, because there’s value in getting to work; they don’t simply say, “There’s a risk on the road; we’re not going to leave the house”—but when you move out of the area of individual activity and theory into government decision-making, I will tell you that there is often a tremendous amount of resistance to risk management.   

There’s a tremendous desire to have the government tell people that we will in fact protect them against every risk in every place at every moment.  And I will tell you that we cannot do that, and we will not do it.  The price to do that would be to convert our society, which is a free and open society, in to a bankrupt police state. 

What we have to do is, we have to intelligently and honestly assess the trade-offs.  We have to understand what are the benefits, what are the risks and what are the costs.  And then we have to have an open and honest discussion about what are the costs we’re prepared to bear in order to achieve a reasonable but not a perfect level of security. 

This process of assessing trade-offs is one that applies across the board to everything that we do, and in particular to the kinds of challenges I’m going to be talking about with you this afternoon. 

When we talk about our borders, we talk about really three dimensions.  We talk about the maritime borders, we talk about the air borders, and we talk about the land borders. 

Each of them presents unique challenges, but there is a common central challenge to that flows across all of these dimensions.  That is the fact that we deal with two types of threats:  known threats and unknown threats.   

Known threats mean people that we know are out there with a desire to do bad things to us.  We have terrorist watch lists.  We are increasingly building databases of fingerprints and biometrics that will allow us to detect people who come in under a false identify. Those are all tools that we have traditionally used to deal with known threats.   

But what 9/11 revealed is that the real danger comes from unknown threats, people that we haven’t identified, who are going to come in  and potentially do tremendous harm.  And it’s dealing with unknown threats that we have our greatest challenge, because it requires us to screen individuals whose identities we may not know or whose histories we may not know, or to look for things which can become implements of war or terror, particularly things like radioactive material, chemical weapons, biological weapons.   

This is what makes the challenge in the post-9/11 world so much greater than the challenge, for example, in the Cold War world, where we knew where the threats were, we had radar to detect the threats, and it seemed that the model was very simple. 

So as we face this new challenge, I begin by saying that we have to do it in a partnership.  It has to be a partnership not only with our state and local officials, who have the lion’s share of the assets that we bring to bear in dealing with threats to our lives and properties, but our international partners as well.  We are linked in a system of travel and trade that has hundreds of participants around the world.  And if we don’t all get on board together, the seams between our activities will be exploited by those who want to cause terror. 

Finally, the private sector has to play a major role in this. The assets that we are mostly concerned about are in private hands. The government does not own all of the assets or employ all of the people who work with those assets.  Any security system that doesn’t leverage the marketplace, the private sector and private incentives is waging a war with not just one but probably both hands tied behind its back. 

So again and again you will hear—as I talk about how we’re dealing with the maritime domain, the air domain and the land domain, I’ll be talking about ways we want to continue to increase the involvement of the private sector in what we do for security. 

And I don’t want to—I’m unapologetic about that, because I think that the private sector has the same interest all of us have in maintaining security.  We all have families.  We all have lives.  The private sector has businesses.   

We all know—any single line of business knows that if that business became the vector or the vehicle for a successful terrorist attack, there would be a ruinous impact on the economic health of that business.  When the airlines became weapons, when airplanes became weapons, there was a dramatic, significant impact on the airline industry.  If containers became weapons or became the means of transporting weapons, it would be seriously damaging to the shipping companies who bring those containers in.   

So we all have a common interest, and rather than quarreling among ourselves, we ought to get together and make sure that that interest gives us the energy to do what has to be done. 

Let me talk first of all about sea freight, maritime freight. You know, that’s a subject that I’ve actually been talking about for a year.  Not a lot of attention was paid in the popular press.  After the Dubai port issue came to the fore and bubbled over into a boil, this became a very topical concern.  And that’s a good opportunity for us to talk seriously about what we do and what we have yet to do. 

The short answer is, we have done quite a bit, but we have a lot more to do, and we can do a lot more. 

Our philosophy—again, risk management—is to devise a system of maintaining security, involving cargo that comes by sea, that doesn’t interfere with the ability or the need to move cargo in and out of the country quickly, but creates layers of security, so that even if there is a failure at a particular layer, there are other layers that can be backstops. 

You know, this approach to layered security is used by the airline industry in terms of safety.  It’s used by all industries that have to deal with complicated systems, where they have to worry about protecting against certain risks. 

We begin overseas.  We have the Container Security Initiative, which aims to put our inspectors in other countries in ports of embarkation, so that when we screen cargo and we find cargo that is at risk, we can conduct the inspections overseas. 

We screen a hundred percent of the cargo that comes by sea for risk; meaning, to see if there’s high-risk cargo, high-risk containers.  If there are containers that are high-risk, we inspect a hundred percent, either by using x-ray machines or by manual inspection when necessary. 

Our preference is to do that inspection before the container actually gets loaded on the ship, and that’s what the Container Security Initiative is designed to do.  And I’m pleased to say, by the end of this year, over 80 percent of the containers coming into this country from foreign ports will be part of the Container Security Initiative. 

We work with the private sector through the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism to have private companies take advantage of their own assets to increase the security in their operations overseas.  We are in the process of validating or we have validated two-thirds of the plans of companies who are part of this program. The idea is that these companies, when they validate the fact that they have rail security, will have a kind of a green-rate advantage in terms of moving their goods into the United States.  In fact, I would venture to say that the model for moving forward in the area of all kinds of transportation of cargo is to build real incentives for companies themselves to elevate their degree of security.  The reward being faster transit through the freight system. 

A third element of what we do is focus on the particular types of weapons threats we’re worried about.  I think the ultimate threat everybody is concerned about with containers is the threat of some kind of radioactive material or nuclear device getting into the country.  To that end, we have invested, and we continue to invest, a significant amount of federal resources into the detection and interception of nuclear material.  This year, for example, the president’s budget asks to have over $500 million for our Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which we stood up for the first time last year, to develop next-generation technology in terms of radiation detection and to more efficiently deploy the detection systems we currently have. 

At the end of this year, two-thirds of all the containers that come through our seaports will go through radiation portal monitors. Next year, we intend to have that be essentially a hundred percent. At the same time, we are continuing to research and deploy more sophisticated detection equipment that can help us more precisely identify and, if necessary, intercept radioactive material. 

These are all things that are in progress, but I want to talk about a vision of a couple things that have yet to come on the cargo side. 

One is we have yet to complete Congress’s mandate to establish a transportation workers identification credential system for seaports. That is going to start in the very near future.  We’ve had a couple of pilots.  We’ve analyzed them.  The time for further study is over. The time for implementation is now upon us.  And I recognize there’s going to be pushback.  There are going to be some people who don’t like the idea of our doing background checks on people.  There are going to be legitimate disputes about what are the criteria for allowing someone to enter and for excluding somebody.  But if we don’t get it back to business of starting this process now, if we wait to have the perfect be the enemy of the good, we may very well wait too long. 

Even more significant, we are going to unveil what we call a Secure Freight Initiative, and I first talked about this last year. The idea is to get a better sense of what is in the chain of supply from the point of origination to the point it actually is delivered, so that we have better information about where the risks are.  That means gathering information, being able to assess it and being able to act on it more quickly.  I’m not necessarily suggesting the government has to acquire the information.  It may be that trusted third parties can acquire that information and sort it in much the same way, for example, that in a securities market, we rely upon the NASD or other quasi-governmental groups to do a lot of the regulatory work. 

I’m also interested—and I intend to go to Hong Kong to see—I’m also interested in technology that may allow us to capture x-ray images of containers before they’re loaded, which would give us an additional ability to drill into what is coming into this country and assess it before it actually hits our ports. 

Again, these are all tools, which, if brought together, will not give us perfect security, but will continue to enhance the strength of each of the layers of security. 

So part of my mission is will be to look at what is out there, to talk to countries, which account, I think, for a very significant percentage of all the container traffic into this country, and to argue vigorously that if we all join together in raising the security level for cargo, we will all benefit.  It’s going to benefit the companies that export—the countries that export, and it’s going to benefit us when we import. 

Now, let’s talk about the domain of air.  Again, you know, when we deal with the issue of threats to our airlines, we use a layered system.  It’s a system that involves screening by name, that’s, of course, screening against known threats; screening by and inspecting luggage and baggage, that’s screening against unknown threats; locking  the doors to cockpits and hardening them, which screens against the—another layer of screening against threats; putting air marshals on airplanes, another layer of screening.  Again, none of these a hundred percent foolproof, but taken together very substantially reducing the risk to Americans who fly. 

But again, I’d like to push the envelope of security further. The fact of the matter is right now we are still operating in a 20th century system of managing information.  A lot of the complaining about our name-screening-based system is false positives, because we get a common name and it matches with a terrorist, and then it takes us questioning in secondary to sort out whether someone is in fact the person on the list.   

We all know that is not an acceptable system.  How do we move beyond that?  We’re going to need to start to ask people—or least offer them the option on a voluntary basis to give us some modest additional information, like date of birth, address, Social Security number, so we can use that to sort out the false positives and focus on the real positives.   Some people, frankly, claim that getting that kind of information would be an invasion of privacy.  And it may well be that we’re going to make it voluntary and people will get to choose themselves.  But I would go further.  I would suggest to you that given a choice between the invasion of privacy of giving your birth date and your Social Security number on the one hand, or getting pulled aside and questioned and having your bags riffled through on the other, most people think that getting pulled aside is a bigger invasion of privacy.  This is what I call a trade-off.  And we have to be intelligent about the fact that sometimes we can actually enhance our privacy in one respect by trading a little in another respect. 

We also have to use more sophisticated tools.  I don’t only mean technology, although we are continuing to research next-generation explosive-detection technology for TSA and for the airplanes.  But we have to look at things like, for example, behavior pattern recognition.  The fact of the matter is, at the border now, our skilled Customs and Border Patrol inspectors use their ability to essentially read behavior to identify people who have to be pulled aside and questioned, even when there is nothing that appears on the passport or nothing that appears in the record that suggests that person is doing anything illegal.  And let me give you a great example of how that works. 

In July 2003, a 30-year-old Jordanian national carrying a genuine Jordanian passport and a perfectly valid visa arrived at O’Hare Airport from Amsterdam.  The fact of the matter is, although all of his paperwork was in order and he was not on a watch list, he was interviewed by Customs and Border Protection officials in secondary screening and denied entry, because when they questioned him and they looked at his behavior, they recognized that he presented multiple  terrorist-risk factors.  So using their training and their experience, they were able to say here is someone who is not a known threat, but based on what we perceive, we believe he’s an unknown threat, and on that basis he was refused entry. 

Were they right?  Well, in 2005, this man was discovered—or his body was discovered in the wake of a suicidal jihadist attack.  He was a suicidal jihadist seeking martyrdom who had driven a vehicle loaded with explosives into a city 60 miles from Baghdad where he blew himself up and murdered 132 innocent Iraqi people.   

The Customs and Border Protection people who used their training and skill to pull an unknown threat out of the line and send him back were using precisely the skills we are going to roll out along our entire screening system.  And that’s the kind of skill, even if it only captures one suicidal jihadist and saves 132 lives in this country, it’s worth doing.   

So that’s how we’re going to deal with the air domain, again, a layered system, an intelligent system, and one I think that makes an appropriate trade-off between security, privacy and freedom of movement. 

Finally, let me talk about land border security.  And in some ways this has been the most emotionally dominant issue in the news over the last year.  The fact of the matter is the issue of illegal migration has been with this country for well over 20 years.  In 1986, Congress undertook an effort to address the issues.  Apparently it was not successful, because we now have, by varying estimates, between 8 million and 12 million illegal migrants in the country.   

People rightly are disturbed by the notion that we do not have control over the borders.  And in a post-9/11 environment, we have to make sure we’re able to concentrate our focus on keeping national security and criminal threats out of this country.  On the other hand, we have to recognize that solving the problem is not easy because the vast majority of migrants who cross the border are coming for economic reasons.  There is a tremendous economic demand for illegal migrants in this country.  It was in The New York Times today.  And the fact of the matter is, if we don’t address that demand in an intelligent fashion, we are eliminating one of the critical tools that would allow us to focus on the bad actors who come in.  We cannot fight the wave of economic demand that is pulling people in.  To do that is try to dam a river without creating an outlet for some of that excess water to go into, and that’s not how you dam a river.   

And that’s why the president has supported and continues to support a temporary worker program that will allow us to relieve some of the pressure on the border and focus our resources on those people that we really want to keep out.  But that means we have to have a better border security system.  And we’re now bringing a comprehensive approach that involves more personnel, better high-technology, integrated systems, including satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles,  and a systems-based approach to making sure that when we capture people, we don’t just let them out, but we actually send them back. And here’s another area where international cooperation is key.   

When illegal migrants get in the country and are caught, many people think that’s the end of the issue.  But the result we’re looking for here is not merely to catch illegal migrants and put them in jail where we get to pay, you know, hundreds of dollars a week to keep them boarded and fed; the idea is to send them back to their home countries. 

We can’t do that without the cooperation of the international community and those countries where the migrants come from.  I’m pleased to say that we have made a lot of progress in getting some of our overseas partners to be much more efficient in the process of receiving back illegal migrants from the home countries.  

And one of the things I’m looking forward to doing in Asia is discussing with my counterparts in China how we can work together to speed up the process of repatriating to China those people who have become illegal migrants.  I think we have a common interest here.  I know the Chinese government is interested in working with us on this in a partnership approach.  And I think if we eliminate some bottlenecks and some procedural issues, we can make a lot of progress. 

We also have a very powerful shared interest in targeting and eliminating the means by which aliens are smuggled in here—criminal smuggling organizations that are bringing people from China and other parts of the world into the United States.  And let’s not kid ourselves, these smuggling organizations are not humanitarian organizations, they are anti-humanitarian organizations.  They extort the people that they bring in; often they leave them to die in the desert or in containers.  They rob them of every penny that they have in order to secure passage.  And in many instances, they keep them in indentured servitude, if not outright slavery, for years after they get into this country.  

So I’m looking forward in particular to working with the Chinese on seeing what we can do to target and eliminate these organizations. And I’m optimistic that they have the same view about the need to make sure these criminal gangs are suppressed.  

Likewise, we will continue to work with Mexico and Canada to enhance our border security and our protection against drug traffickers, human smugglers and terrorists, should they try to come in through our northern or our southern land borders.   

Finally, again, in every one of these respects we can use the private sector to leverage.  We can use it, for example, with respect to the maritime domain by having the private sector assume increased responsibility for security, profiling of the cargo that comes into the country.  We can validate what those private organizations do by having third parties audit security profiles of countries.  It doesn’t have to be the United States government that goes out and physically audits every company.  That’s expensive and it’s inefficient.  We can  rely on the same tools we’ve used in the financial sector, or in a lot of sectors, by commissioning and validating auditing agencies who would go out and do a lot of the work for us of making sure that the security plans are what they need to be. 

Finally, I want to talk about the other side of the coin.  I’ve talked about security in an international environment, but we also have to be a welcoming country.  We are competing in a global world. That means not only that we have to compete in terms of goods and services, we have to compete in terms of intellectual capital.  We want to attract and retain the best intellectual capital in the world. That means we have to be more welcoming than we sometimes have been to foreigners who want to come work, study and tour in this country. 

Secretary Rice and I announced in January that we were going to put forward a specific set of initiatives to make sure that we are facilitating entry into this country of those people that we want to have come here.  And a critical element of that is our People Access Security Service system—the development of a new, inexpensive secure travel card for land border crossings that will meet the documentation requirements that have recently been imposed by law, but that will facilitate the movement of people in and out of the country.  

We have to look at things like increased visas for people who bring intellectual capital to the table, and for people who have unique skills.  The fact of the matter is, we will lose the war against terror if we don’t foster and encourage that greatest tool, which is the ingenuity of free-thinking minds in developing the kind of steps that allow us to stay a step ahead of the bad guys. 

We’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of us.  The hazards are some we’ve talked about; there are hazards I haven’t had a chance to talk about, including things like avian flu, which could—may never strike, but could in fact become a serious human pandemic.  We worry about natural hazards.  I was reading recently in the news that people say there could even be a devastating hurricane in New York.  So you should all go and dust off your evacuation plans and get on the Web and check and see what it is you would do if there were in fact a significant hurricane headed to New York City. 

But we can, and we will in fact achieve greater levels of protection for the people in this country if we continue to work together, if we don’t let ourselves get beguiled by quick fixes that are ultimately unbalanced and, therefore, can’t be sustained in the long run; if we are rational about the trade-offs, and if we always remember that the point of security is not security in and of itself, it’s security as part of an entire picture of a country in which we live as free people with civil liberties, with economic prosperity, and with a sense of personal safety. 

Thank you very much.  (Applause.) 

BROKAW:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  

(Brief audio break due to technical difficulties on site.) 

BROKAW:  (Referring to microphone)  Not on? 

QUESTIONER:  Now it’s on. 

BROKAW:  Now it’s on.  Now you’ll learn that I have nothing worth saying.  (Laughter.) 

Let me ask you a broader question.  I’ve just returned from the subcontinent.  I came back, I think it’s fair to say, in greater despair than I have been in the last—half dozen trips that I’ve made in the last two years.  I was there at the time the Danish cartoons had been published.  I was there when the political firestorm broke in this country over DP World, the Dubai Ports. 

And my question to you is, when you assess risk now, post- political firestorm, can you measure hostility in that part of the world?  Can you measure the effect that debate might have had on the radical Islamic movement, and whether it set us back or whether we’re at the same place that we were before, or did it affect you in any way in terms of how you go about your job? 

CHERTOFF:  I can’t assess it mathematically.  I can tell you it certainly didn’t help.  We need to be able to demonstrate to the world that we know how to treat our friends well and our enemies not well, and when we confuse our friends and our enemies, and when we paint with a broad brush, that is a message that is counterproductive. 

Now I think that, you know, there’s a general understanding in the world, and I suspect in the minds of the sophisticated businessmen at Dubai Ports World, that sometimes public issues erupt in a way that causes friction, but in the long run it doesn’t really matter.  You have to kind of get back to the fundamental principles that bind us together, which is a desire to be—have mutually—have mutual respect, have freedom and have economic prosperity.  But it does not help us when the world at large gets the image that we are unfriendly. 

BROKAW:  But with all due respect, Mr. Secretary, this comes right after your agency took a real battering because of the way it handled Katrina, and the administration really had not prepared even its own political base for the idea that a Dubai-based company would be handling security in American ports. 

So doesn’t some of the fault lie within the administration generally and specifically within Homeland Security? 

CHERTOFF:  Well, I think if you’re asking from a—in a kind of real-world sense, was there a danger in the arrangement that was being contemplated?  The answer is no.  I mean, not only did we have a good track record with this company, including a track record which involves an enormous amount of military materiel and an enormous number of military people who go through that port all the time  overseas, but we had actually built in some additional assurances which would have given us more security in the wake of the deal than we had before the deal. 

The irony of this—the irony of this is that had the deal gone forward, we would have had greater ability to impose a security regime worldwide on the company than we have now. 

That being said, it’s clear from a public messaging standpoint we dropped the ball, and it may be that it was a kind of a classic case of people who know the facts weren’t paying enough attention to the perception of the facts. 

As we go forward, we obviously have to consider this, but I do want to caution against one thing, Tom.  I would hate to see the process of dealing with national security issues in foreign investment become politicized to the point that we start to make decisions not based on the merits, but because we’re afraid someone can take a set of facts and twist them and make us look bad, because if we were to go down that road, there would be a very long-run, serious negative effect on our economy.  And (apparently ?) that means jobs.  I mean, people, if we do not have a good foreign investment in this country, properly checked for security, we’re going to lose jobs. 

So part of reconciling the need for a good economy and the need for good security is being intelligent and selective about the way we deal with these kinds of issues. 

BROKAW:  But this is a political battering across the board, as many Republicans were on your case as were Democrats. 

CHERTOFF:  Well, there’s no question that in terms of a sound bite, when you say, “Arabs are taking over the ports,” that is going to understandably cause a lot of people to become alarmed.  And perhaps where we were not successful is getting out early enough to explain, first of all, Arabs weren’t taking over the ports.  Second, this was a very reputable company with a real track record.  Third, that security is always in the hands of the Coast Guard or the Customs people.  But, you know, those are a little bit more complicated explanations. 

I suspect we will be better now about the public messaging on all of these things to make sure we’re clear from the getgo to the public and to Congress about exactly what kinds of security we build into these deals. 

BROKAW:  Mr. Secretary, we’re going to take some questions from the audience, and I’ll have the liberty of following up on the some of them as well. 

Yes, sir?  Right here.  Remember:  your name, microphone. 

QUESTIONER:  Harold Varmus, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.  I was very pleased to hear you comment on the need to be more welcoming to intellectual capital and from—distinguished intellects.  But, nevertheless, just a few weeks ago, many of us in the scientific community were very disturbed to see the difficulty that was—that greeted one of the world’s most famous chemists, Goverdhan Mehta, former head of the all India Institute of Sciences, when he attempted to apply for a visa to come to this country for a meeting.  And the humiliation he experienced when he attempted to get a visa led him to make a public statement about his experience that, obviously, is very hurtful to our efforts to bring foreign scientists here for training and for meetings. 

And I’d like to know explicitly what you plan to do to make the country seem to be more welcoming to scientific intellects. 

CHERTOFF:  I don’t think I’m allowed legally to talk about individual cases, but I can tell you I recognize from time to time we do have circumstances where people have visa problems.  We try to work those out.  We are not always successful.  Sometimes there’s information in a file about somebody which rightfully causes us to be concerned and raise issues at the visa process. 

I think this is a process of education.  It’s a process of making sure that our Foreign Service officers overseas have better tools that allow them to more rapidly screen to determine who should be able to come in and who shouldn’t be able to come in. 

There will always be some circumstances, I suspect, where people who appear to b reputable will have something in the file that will cause us hesitation.  But—and like any other human endeavor, we can make mistakes.  But I think what Secretary Rice and I are firmly committed to is streamlining this system and trying to be more sensible about how we apply these rules. 

BROKAW:  Robin, right here. 

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  Robin Duke, Guttmacher Institute.  Mr. Secretary, would you be for an endorsement of IDs for all Americans? 

CHERTOFF:  We actually have IDs for all Americans.  You have drivers’ licenses, or almost everybody does, if you’re above a certain age.  If you’re my daughter, you’re waiting to get your driver’s license ID. 

The fact of the matter is, what we don’t have is reliable identification.  And one of the challenges we have is, how do we create a form of identification that we are increasingly being asked for, whether it’s getting into a public building or getting into an airplane, that is convenient for people, that is easy to carry and that is reliable. 

Now, Congress has taken a couple of steps in this direction. They’ve passed the REAL ID Act, which requires a certain amount of validation before you get a driver’s license.  There’s the Western Hemisphere Border Initiative, which will require a card that can be used in a similar fashion to get back and cross the—back and forth across the borders.  

Where all these things are headed, I think, is a capability to find a form of identification—not a mandatory form of identification, but a voluntary form of identification—that can serve all of these different functions. 

Now, the fact of the matter is, as it is now, you can’t get on an airplane if you don’t have ID.  So it ought to at least be accurate ID, and it ought to be reliable ID. 

BROKAW:  Just right back there—behind you. 

QUESTIONER:  Ken Roth from Human Rights Watch.  I wanted to pick up your comment on painting with too broad a brush and apply it to refugee admissions to the United States.  As you undoubtedly know, a law that began, I think, with the Patriot Act and has been amended prohibits admission to anybody who has materially supported a terrorist group, which sounds fine in principle.  But as applied, “terrorist group” has been interpreted to mean anybody who takes up arms, not simply attacking civilians, but for example the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, various Burmese rebel groups trying to overthrow the junta in Burma.  And “material support” has been interpreted, you know, even being forced to, you know, provide food to a rebel group or something of the sort, you know, utterly involuntary conduct.   

As a result, for example, there are now 10,000 Burmese refugees not admitted to the United States because of this misapplication of the law. 

I realize that this is Congress’s doing, but would you support changing the law to interpret it more sensibly? 

CHERTOFF:  Well, first of all, I’m glad you’re not trying to trap me into acting like a lawyer, because I renounced that when I took this job.  I’m recovering from being a lawyer.   

We obviously have to work with the legal standard as it is.  I can’t say that I’ve thought about how one could change the standard to achieve what I think you’re talking about, which is to keep out people who are bad and to allow people who are good to come in. 

I would caution you, though, that there is a—it’s a tricky area because there would be disagreement in this room, I suspect, about terrorism.  And when you get into the area of describing people who claim that they’re taking arms up against an oppressive regime, it gets difficult sometimes to draw distinctions between groups that I think we would all agree we should keep out and groups that there might be some disagreement with.  

So my suspicion is that if there’s going to be a change in the law, it’s going to proceed cautiously.   

I can tell you, for example, that in Europe there are groups that we regard as terrorist groups that are not regarded as terrorist groups.  And yet they may be responsible for the deaths of American citizens that are innocent. 

So in theory, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that we ought to be able to distinguish between people who are legitimately resisting oppression and terrorists.  But writing a law that does that is not an easy task.   

BROKAW:  Yes?  Wait for the microphone to—

QUESTIONER:  Mr. Secretary, I’m Ted Sorensen at Paul, Weiss.  You impressively outlined the measures to prevent terrorist weapons from getting into this country, measures to prevent terrorists from getting into this country.  Have you thought about measures to stop them from becoming terrorists in the first place? 

CHERTOFF:  Well, you know, that—Mr. Sorensen, that is a question that actually is very much on my mind and the mind of people in my department and other departments.  It’s what we call the issue of radicalization.  It’s a subject that is—it’s certainly a serious question here.  I think it’s frankly a more serious question in Europe, where the London bombings demonstrated how people who appear on the surface to be well-integrated citizens in a society suddenly become radicalized and in a very short period of time become operational. 

We’re—as we speak, we’re trying to study what turns people into radicals.  It doesn’t seem to be simply a matter of economics, because some of the jihadists we’ve seen in fact come from well-to-do families.   

There seem to be cultural issues.  There seem to be issues about the ability of a society to integrate people.  I think one of the lessons I’ve taken away at this point is that the very openness of our society and the mobility of our society is a tremendous tool we have in preventing radicalization.   

But we have to look at the fact, for example, that prisons have traditionally been areas in the United States where criminal gangs and politically motivated gangs have arisen.  So we have to be concerned about that. 

And I think we’re going to need to understand more about the psychology about what converts 18- and 19-year-old kids into suicide bombers if we’re really going to deal with what I agree is really the next threat, which is the homegrown terrorist. 

BROKAW:  Do you think that the war in Iraq has expanded the base of the terrorist population around the world? 

CHERTOFF:  I think the war in Iraq has certainly attracted people from other parts of the world into Iraq to do jihad.  But I will tell you that before the war in Iraq, there was the war in Chechnya, and there was the war in Bosnia.   

I’m friendly with a French magistrate who’s been investigating terrorism for many years, and what you have are people who are jihadists or would-be jihadists who find a conflict, and whether the conflict is in Iraq or in Chechnya or some place we haven’t heard of yet, they will go there and they will train, and some percentage of them will come back and be a threat.  And that’s why a lot of what we have to do is to try to track that.   

But I also have to say I think at the end what we have to do is to change the culture on the ground, both in the West and in the Middle East, so that we have the kinds of societies which don’t encourage a subset of the population to become radicalized and violent. 

BROKAW:  Yes, ma’am? 

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  I’m Moushumi Khan.  I’m an attorney here in New York. I appreciate so much your balanced and really rational points.  I appreciate it.  And as a product of the intellectual capital flow of the ‘70s—my father came here to do a Ph.D. in engineering from a Muslim country—I appreciate that.   

But now I’m an attorney working with Muslims and immigrants in New York, and I’m very concerned about the issue of—I’ve seen a rise in recruitment of informants, and the “see something, say something” terrorism hotlines.  What is the consequence of making a false report, and what is the mechanism to ensure that we don’t waste our energy on those kind of false reportings? 

CHERTOFF:  That’s a very good question.  You know, false reporting is a perennial problem in law enforcement.  If I go back to  my roots when I was a prosecutor doing organized crime cases, I mean tips and reports can be very, very valuable.  But you get a certain number of what we call “poison pen” letters, often from disgruntled former girlfriends, or spouses, or things of that sort.  We do screen them out.  Frankly, what we do sometimes is prosecute people who make false reports.  There was a case here in New York, I think not long ago—or maybe a couple of years ago now—where a report was made in which someone was accused of something, it turned out to be a false accusation, and I think the government then prosecuted the accuser. And we’ve got to continue to do that because it is not only damaging to the innocent person who is accused, but it is a distraction from our real mission if we have to go on wild goose chases. 

BROKAW:  Right here. 

QUESTIONER:  Sheldon Segal from the Population Council.  Mr. Secretary, last night on the “Charlie Rose Show,” your colleague in the Cabinet, Secretary Leavitt, listed his view of the threats that the country is facing, and he had terrorism below the potential threat of an avian flu pandemic.  I happen to agree with him.  But do you think that the federal government is doing an adequate job of preparing, to the extent of your department’s responsibilities, for that potential? 

CHERTOFF:  Well, you know, I don’t know that I’d want to rank one above the other.  But I agree avian flu is a serious potential threat, potential because, as the piece in the paper said today, it hasn’t yet achieved the stage of human-to-human transmission, which would make it a real threat.  But that could happen.  We don’t know when. 

Congress has appropriated—the president asked for and Congress appropriated several billion dollars to have basically a crash program to allow us to enhance the tools we have to analyze a flu, if in fact it comes to pass, and to create a vaccine and then to ramp up the production of that vaccine. 

From our standpoint, we are working, as we speak ,under a national strategy the president issued about a month or two ago to develop very specific plans about how we would deal with avian flu. And that includes the medical piece, which of course my colleague, Mike Leavitt, is responsible for, and the non-medical piece, including making sure we didn’t lose essential services, trying to minimize the effect on our economy, which is really, you know, my responsibility to supervise.  

But this brings me back to the point I made earlier.  This is not a federal government responsibility alone, this is a state and local government responsibility.  That’s where most of the public health assets in this country are located.  It is a private responsibility. And since I’m sure there are a lot of corporate executives here, I’ll take the opportunity to challenge everybody to go back to their business and ask themselves, if there were a serious medical pandemic, what would you do to keep your business operating?  Who are your  essential workers?  If you had to prioritize vaccine for those workers, would you be able to do that?  Who could work from home? What would be your capability to be resilient?  Because I will tell you, the danger from avian flu may be not only the medical danger, but may be the collateral danger if, for example, the water systems don’t work, or the power systems go down, or the transportation systems are put out of action. 

One of the critical lessons I’ve learned in the last year is, preparedness is an individual responsibility, at the end of the day. And a lot of things people are anxious about, frankly, they have some control over.  They can make plans for themselves, they can make plans for their businesses, just as we make plans to deal with things that have to be dealt with on a federal level. 

And so my parting words on this are, I think we’ll have to get to a point where we see it as a civic responsibility for able-bodied people and people with means to take the steps they need to protect themselves and to protect their fellow citizens. 

BROKAW:  Mr. Secretary, if this meeting were being held in New Orleans or on the Gulf Coast, most of the questions would have been about the response of Homeland Security to Katrina.  

So since we don’t have a chapter down there, I’m going to speak for the people of the Ninth Ward.  Why shouldn’t FEMA be removed from Homeland Security?  It worked very well before, during Hurricane Andrew and other disasters across this country.  And After Hurricane Katrina, Fran Townsend, who is the president’s domestic adviser on security issues, issued a 217-page report in which she said you were too focused on terror, and there is a Disaster Response Group established at the White House in effect creating a dotted line away from Homeland Security at the White House so that they don’t suffer the kind of political damage that they did the last time.   

Why not just take FEMA out of there and let them worry about natural disasters and you worry about terrorism and pandemics? 

CHERTOFF:  Let me—I’m going to correct a few things. First of all, I’m fascinated that you used Hurricane Andrew as an example of something that worked well.  I’d challenge you to go back to the record and read the things that were said about FEMA after Hurricane Andrew.  They are virtually identical to what were said after Katrina. 

BROKAW:  But the consequences, with all due respect, were not nearly as grave as they were in New Orleans. 

CHERTOFF:  Correct.  And the challenge in New Orleans is very much greater than Andrew.  In fact, if you look at what worked well in Katrina—and it’s wrong to say everything failed—what worked well were those challenges that required DHS as a whole department to come into play.  There was a real failure in the secondary evacuation.  There were people who were not removed from the Superdome and the convention center for 24 to 48 hours later than they should have been.  But there was a big success story.  The original projection for a loss of life in a hurricane that didn’t even involve a breach of the levees was 60,000 deaths.  In the space of little more than a week, DHS—Coast Guard and other parts of DHS, including FEMA—rescued approximately 40,000 people—people from rooftops, people stranded in homes, people on highways.  And while a lot of times those people may have been uncomfortable, there are 40,000 people walking around alive today because DHS rescued them.   

So I think it’s important, first of all, not to throw the baby out with the bath water.  I’m the first person to say there were failures, and it’s a personal disappointment to me that there were parts of the department that didn’t work as well as they should.  But  I can absolutely tell you that the way forward is to build on what we’ve integrated and complete the job, as opposed to separate them again and then create the classic government stovepipe where everybody has a narrow skill set and a narrow mission and things tend to fall between the seams. 

BROKAW:  But isn’t there the real possibility that, given all that’s on your plate across that broad board, that necessarily so many of the responsibilities are simply going to fall through the crack because you’re necessarily going to have to concentrate on terrorism, on the possibility of a pandemic, and natural disasters of this order are really of a separate order of magnitude than what you were created to do? 

CHERTOFF:  Well, first of all, of course, the good news is there are 183,000 people in the department, not just me.   Otherwise, I’d want to get 183,000 times my salary.  (Laughter.)  And what I’m anticipating in very short order is the ability to announce a team at FEMA that will really have a set of skills that will manage FEMA in a way that they haven’t been managed before.  There’s clearly a lot of building we have to do in terms of 21st century technology and things of that sort. 

But I want to—I don’t want to fight the last war.  I want to step back and ask ourselves, aren’t there going to be a lot of situations where we’re going to have a hazard or a catastrophe and we’re not going to know if it’s terrorism or not?  You know, biological is a perfect example.  You can have a biological event like anthrax and not know if it’s a naturally occurring event or a terrorism event.  The fact of the matter is, having two agencies chasing that event would get us exactly where we were between the FBI and the CIA prior to 9/11.  I think if there’s any lesson we’ve learned in dealing with all of the threats we face—and I dealt with them when I was at the Criminal Division in terms of the 9/11 event, and I’ve now dealt with them in Katrina—is we do better when we integrate and we connect the dots.  We do worse when we fragment and stovepipe. 

BROKAW:  Last question from the audience, right back here. Yes, sir?  He’s buttoning his jacket; it’s a serious question. (Laughter.) 

QUESTIONER:  Very much so. 

First of all, Mr. Secretary, my name is John O’Connor.  I’m with JH Whitney here in New York, but also a New Orleans native and veteran of Betsy, Camille, Andrew and vicariously of Katrina.  And on behalf of the two members of my family who were airlifted off a roof, thank you for a job well done.  And I sympathize with the undue criticism you routinely get, having a first-hand dog in that fight.  But my question is as a New Yorker and a member of the board of the Fund for Public Health in New York.   

Some of your sister agencies, like HHS, do not adopt a risk-based approach to funding.  As a consequence, we here in New York are systematically and materially underfunded in our healthcare preparations.  What can you do and what can we do to get your sister agencies to adopt your best practices and help New York City as it deserves to be? 

CHERTOFF:  Well, first of all, I appreciate your comments about New Orleans.  I’m not familiar enough with the laws that deal with grants at HHS to speak specifically about it, but I will tell you, speaking for my own agency, this is a serious issue for the country in terms of how we spend money.  And you see it reflected in a lot of ways.  We, for example, strongly believe in risk-based funding. Congress has gone a considerable distance in supporting that, but they haven’t gone the whole way and there still are elements of our funding that are basically prescribed by geographic minimum.   

Some of that is political reality.  I think that what is required is people have to start to look at the issue of funding for security and health as not open to the normal kind of political horse-trading that applies to other kinds of funding. 

And you know, in some ways we have a similar challenge with defense base closings, and they had to set up a commission in order to find a way to do that in a way that was—it was taken out of politics. That’s actually a failure for the system.  It suggests that we can’t govern ourselves; we have to get experts to do it. 

I think it’s a matter for political engagement.  I mean, I think people have to get out and talk about the importance of being risk- based.  I understand people—there will be legitimate disagreement about how to allocate risks, and that’s a fair thing to debate.  And it’s fair for us to listen and sometimes to revise.  But I completely agree with you when you say we ought to be risk-based in our funding for oil hazards, and to the—I’m confident that the secretary of Health and Human Services believes that.  I don’t know what the legal constraints he’s operating under are, but I think this is a cause that has to be taken up by everybody. 

BROKAW:  Mr. Secretary, we thank you for your candor and for giving us your time today.  We appreciate it.  (Applause.)









Top Stories on CFR


Ukraine has rejected recent calls by the West for it to settle its war with Russia. Ukrainian leaders believe they have a chance to reclaim territory lost in the early fighting—and that they can do so before serious negotiations begin.


In moving away from strategic ambiguity, Biden made a long overdue adjustment to U.S. policy.

South Korea

Presidents Biden and Yoon pledged to deepen and broaden the scope of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, but their success could depend on how China, Japan, and North Korea respond.