President Bush nominated on Tuesday Michael Chertoff, a federal appeals court judge who helped draft the nation’s antiterrorism laws after the Sept. 11 attacks, to head the Homeland Security Department, the mammoth agency tasked with preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
After his first nominee for the job, New York Police Chief Bernard Kerik, was forced to withdraw, Bush’s decision to pick Chertoff was applauded by many Democrats, who predicted a quick confirmation by the Senate.
Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., called Chertoff, a former U.S. attorney for New Jersey, “one of the most able people and public servants I have ever known.”
Chertoff, 51, ran the criminal division of the Justice Department for the first three years of Bush’s tenure and was instrumental in crafting the administration’s legal response to the terrorist attacks, including the USA Patriot Act. Some critics charge Chertoff trampled on civil liberties while prosecuting a legal war on terrorism at Justice.
“Mike has shown a deep commitment to the cause of justice and an unwavering determination to protect the American people,” Bush said. “Mike has also been a key leader in the war on terror.”
The agency that Chertoff would inherit from Tom Ridge faces challenges on nearly every one of its high-priority fronts.
The department, a collection of 22 pre-existing agencies, is under criticism for what many experts say is a failure to address significant security gaps, such as protecting U.S. chemical plants and ports, securing U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, and helping the country’s first responders to prepare for attacks.
Some domestic defense specialists have concluded that the department is severely underfinanced and understaffed in many of its key functions and has lost turf battles with other agencies.
One result is the department lacks a leadership role in some policy areas that many outsiders had expected it would be pre-eminent, such as in assembling terrorist watch lists.
While he had not been mentioned publicly, Chertoff has been on Bush’s radar screen since well before the Kerik debacle, according to a senior White House official. Some in the White House, however, thought Chertoff would be reluctant to forfeit his seat on the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia — a position Bush appointed him to in 2003.