President Bush nominated federal appeals court judge Michael Chertoff to head the Homeland Security Department Tuesday, as the president turned to a former prosecutor to run the mammoth agency tasked with preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
After his first nominee, former New York police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, was forced to withdraw, Bush's decision to pick Chertoff was applauded by many Democrats, who predicted a quick Senate confirmation. Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., called Chertoff "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 Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including the USA Patriot Act. Some critics charge that 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 told reporters Tuesday morning. "Mike has also been a key leader in the war on terror."
Chertoff's admirers say he is respectful of constitutional protections and stress his legal skills as a prosecutor and lawyer in private practice.
"He's got the right mix of substantive knowledge and administrative skill that is needed for this job," said George Terwilliger, a senior Justice Department official in the first Bush administration who is close to the White House.
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.
Chertoff is likely to face questions about his credentials for running a 180,000-person agency. Chertoff's management experience has mainly been limited to running the criminal division of the Justice Department.
A clerk to Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. in 1979 and 1980, Chertoff joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York in 1983, where he prosecuted Mafia figures. Later, in New Jersey, he made his mark pursuing corrupt politicians, including Jersey City Mayor Gerald McCann.
Chertoff's central role in designing the nation's counterterrorism policies after Sept. 11 is likely to prompt scrutiny from some Senate Democrats handling his confirmation.
After the attacks on Washington and New York, Attorney General John Ashcroft, fearful that other terrorist "sleepers" might mount new attacks, ordered the detention of hundreds of Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian men who had committed even minor immigration violations. He named Chertoff, as head of the criminal division, to take the lead in the effort.
Civil liberties groups soon denounced the policy.
In 2003, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine released a report concluding that top government officials instituted a "hold until clear" policy for the detainees even though immigration officials questioned its legality.
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement that Chertoff should be grilled by senators about his enforcement of the USA Patriot Act and other counterterrorism initiatives it has condemned. "We are troubled that his public record suggests he sees the Bill of Rights as an obstacle to national security," the ACLU said.
With the selection of Chertoff, Bush is nearing completion of one of the most dramatic overhauls of a Cabinet for a second-term presidency. Bush has accepted _ or requested _ the resignation of most Cabinet secretaries and replaced them with a notably loyal and diverse team.
Bush still must appoint a director of national intelligence, an Environmental Protection Agency chief and a U.S. trade representative, as well as a few senior White House policy advisers. Retired Gen. Tommy Franks is considered a top candidate to become the first national intelligence director.
While he had not been mentioned publicly, Chertoff has been on Bush's radar screen since well before the Kerik debacle. Some in the White House, however, thought Chertoff would be reluctant to forfeit his seat on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia _ a position Bush appointed him to in 2003.
Chertoff is seen as a safe pick because he has been confirmed by the Senate three times for government positions _ first as U.S. attorney, then assistant attorney general and, finally, as a judge less than two years ago.
Chertoff told reporters he would "devote all my energy to promoting our homeland security and, as important, to preserving our fundamental liberties."
At his May 2003 confirmation hearings for the federal bench, Chertoff was forced by Senate Democrats to explain how the Patriot Act, which expanded the government's surveillance powers, did not encroach on ordinary Americans' freedom. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., was the only senator to oppose Chertoff's nomination. Her concerns were not about 9/11 policies, rather Chertoff's role as the Senate Republican's chief counsel in the Whitewater investigation of the 1990s.
Chertoff was counsel to the Senate committee that probed former President Bill Clinton's land dealing. Sen. Clinton told reporters Tuesday she would reserve judgment on his nomination for homeland defense until the two sit down and discuss his record.
DEFENSE: Donald Rumsfeld
STATE: Condoleezza Rice
EDUCATION: Margaret Spellings
COMMERCE: Carlos Gutierrez
HEALTH and HUMAN SERVICES: Mike Leavitt
HOMELAND SECURITY: Michael Chertoff
TRANSPORTATION: Norman Mineta
AGRICULTURE: Michael Johanns
VETERANS AFFAIRS: Jim Nicholson
TREASURY: John Snow
HOUSING and URBAN DEVELOPMENT: Alphonso Jackson
ENERGY: Samuel Bodman
JUSTICE (attorney general): Alberto Gonzales
INTERIOR: Gale Norton
LABOR: Elaine Chao