Friday, January 13, 2006

Chertoff Speaks

While everyone has hyperventilating over the confirmation hearings of Samuel Alito (who will be confirmed by a wide margin -- may you wear that robe for the next forty years, sir), there is a world beyond the Hart Senate Office Building. Thanks to a very generous friend, I was able to attend a lecture given on Monday night by President Bush's current Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.

Keep reading to find out what he had to say.

1) Risk, Threats, and Cost-Benefit Analysis. Chertoff began his lecture by giving the audience a management-style view of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and how he works to assess risks and threats on a daily basis. Without getting too technical, he noted that DHS focuses on problems that fit a certain sliding scale that cross-references intent with capability.

Chertoff also drew upon what law school students the world over (or those taught by Posnerites, anyway) know, which is that cost can be a substantial barrier to doing many things, and that fighting terrorism is not immune from those barriers. Essentially, he noted that risk management is essentially about determining how much safety one can provide without breaking the bank, and that that was no small challenge.

2) The Other White Meat. Chertoff spent a decent amount of time talking about how congressional pork-barrel spending interferes with DHS's ability to efficiently provide for the homeland security. He did so primarily by rejecting the notion that lots of money spread around equally was more effective than specifically targeted funds aimed at only the most vulnerable cities and states. He said that broad-based, untargeted spending was problematic because the money under such circumstances had more of a placebic than a real effect, and was (my words, not his) essentially an attempt to use the threat of terror as a means of redistribution.

To provide context, Chertoff discussed the most recent round of DHS disbursements to American cities adjudged to be at the highest risk of terrorist attack. He noted that a finely tuned process, utilizing a multitude of unspecified factors, was used to calculate which cities were most in need of federal funds, and that disbursements were made accordingly. He then noted that any such logic-based process, no matter how rational or reasonable in most people's minds, would be targeted by some who perceived their cities or states to have been neglected. (He never named names or cities, but it was clear that Chertoff was referring to Senator Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) call for Chertoff to resign because Las Vegas was not among the most recent round of cities that received funds. What Chertoff noted, and what Reid failed to note (surprise, surprise), was that Las Vegas is the recipient of separate and distinct grants that had nothing to do with these disbursements.)

3) Intelligence-Gathering and the USA PATRIOT Act. Chertoff made it clear that he viewed intelligence as the paramount tool in the War on Terror. Calling it the "radar of the War on Terror," he declared that making strides against terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda is basically impossible unless the tools exist to gain information in a secretive manner and apply it as needed, and he was unequivocal in stating that intelligence-gathering efforts would be out of step unless key provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act were renewed in short order.

Chertoff even took on critics who claimed that current information-gathering techniques, including domestic and roving wiretaps used by the White House against known al Qaeda operatives, detracted from civil liberties. He first noted what others have been saying for literally years, which is that the USA PATRIOT Act only codified and permitted the use of surveillance tactics that had long been used against drug traffickers and organized crime against terrorist organizations. He then made what some here on TPS and elsewhere might construe as a novel argument: namely, that, by seeking information from specific and known terrorist sources, the civil liberties of the great majority would be enhanced because there would be less of a need to, for example, search everyone's bags at airports or have highway checkpoints.

4) Mixed Results on Immigration. Chertoff would have been remiss if he had not raised the subject of immigration, and he did, but I certainly got a mixed vibe from what he had to say. In line with his macro view of national security and the struggle against terrorist organizations, Chertoff stated that there is a solution to the massive influx of illegal immigration primarily through Mexico, and that physically securing the border is only one facet of any solution. He also said (and I am paraphrasing) that catch-and-release is not a viable policy option anymore, and that, in a perverse way, catch-and-release almost rewards illegal immigrants by encouraging them to enter the United States illegally, turn themselves in to authorities, and then abscond prior to their immigration hearing.

On the whole, his positions made sense, and he intoned a general -- and genuine, in my opinion -- opposition to illegal immigration. But Chertoff felt the need (no doubt because he was essentially plugging for President Bush's policy preferences) to soften the blow by using terms like "undocumented" instead of "illegal," and claiming that a "guest worker program" is a hardheadedly logical part of any illegal immigration solution.


On my way out of the lecture hall, I started chatting with the guy next to me about the speech. We both thought it was thorough and informative, but we were both also struck by something else: Chertoff seemed to want to say a lot more, and the things he did not say were almost as telling as the things he did say. For instance, at one point in the lecture, Chertoff mentioned that the administration had foiled or disrupted several terror attacks aimed at the United States -- and then moved on. There was no follow-up at all. One could read that in a variety of ways, but the way he said it gave me the impression that he wanted to say more but just could not, due to the constraints of the delicate nature of intelligence as well as his inability to discuss classified material.


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