The Big, Bad Michael Chertoff


WASHINGTON, D.C.—Michael Chertoff, President Bush’s new pick for Homeland Security chief, makes the outgoing Tom Ridge look like a cream puff. He gives no quarter. There is no mercy. The Constitution? Forget it. Bush’s hard man in the war on terror, Chertoff stands behind deployment of all the tools in the Patriot Act, a position he made clear as a prosecutor in John Ashcroft’s Justice Department.

Democratic senators Charles Schumer of New York and Jon Corzine of New Jersey offered cautious approval of Chertoff, now working as a federal appeals judge in Corzine’s state.

Chertoff managed the Justice Department’s criminal division, some 800 people. He was very involved with the war on terror and personally argued the case against Zacarias Moussaoui.

“He’s faced countless challenging decisions and has helped to protect his fellow Americans while protecting their civil liberties,” Bush said at a White House ceremony with the nominee. Chertoff promised that, if he’s confirmed, he’ll “devote all my energy to promoting our homeland security and, as important, to preserving our fundamental liberties.”

In November 2001, according to Reuters, Chertoff told Congress that the government should reconsider how it designates enemy combatants.

“Without understanding the challenge we face, one cannot understand the need for the measures we have employed. Are we being aggressive and hard-nosed? You bet. In the aftermath of September 11th, how could we not be? Our fundamental duty to protect America and its people requires no less,” he said. “Yet it is equally important to emphasize that the detentions, the targeted interviews, and the other aggressive investigative techniques we are currently employing are all legal under the Constitution and applicable federal law as it existed both before and after September 10. Nobody is being held incommunicado; nobody is being denied the right to an attorney; nobody is being denied due process.”

Chertoff continued, “These [the attacks on September 11] were war crimes, in addition to domestic crimes. There is nothing inappropriate or unfair in trying war crimes as they often have been tried—before military commissions.”

Steven Brill, in his book After reports sources saying that in strategy sessions at the Justice Department, Chertoff went along with holding detainees for long periods of time, and even argued that if some of them got hearings, the proceedings “could not only be done in secret, but also could be delayed, and that even after the hearings were held and they were ordered deported [usually for only minor immigration violations], there was nothing in the law that said they absolutely had to be deported immediately. They could be held still longer.”

Brill reports that, under immigration rules, the prisoners “were entitled to call a lawyer from jail, but the lists the INS provided of available lawyers invariably had phone numbers that were not in service.”

Wrote Brill: “Chertoff reasoned that while they were being held they would be discouraged from calling lawyers, and could be questioned without lawyers present because they were not being charged with any crime.”

Chertoff got a reputation as an aggressive and partisan investigator when he served as special counsel to the Senate committee investigating Watergate. Before that, under Rudy Giuliani in New York, he successfully prosecuted cases against the Mafia. Bush’s father named him to be U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, a post he held from 1990 to 1994. In that job, he oversaw prosecutions of Jersey City mayor Gerald McCann, New York chief judge Sol Wachtler, and the kidnappers and killers of Sidney Reso, the Exxon executive.

Incoming president Bill Clinton let Chertoff, a Republican appointee, keep his job at the behest of then senator Bill Bradley.