Nation & World

Security chief cautions against complacency

4 min read

Long-term threats outweigh short-term interests

If Michael Chertoff, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was politically wounded by his department’s response to Hurricane Katrina, he showed no sign of it during his forceful lecture Feb. 6 at the Kennedy School of Government.

Chertoff, a graduate of Harvard College (1975) and Harvard Law School (1978), defended efforts to correctly access and manage the risk of terrorism and other security threats and to move forward with long-term policies that may be unpopular in the short term.

In a public address provocatively titled “Why Washington Doesn’t Work” for the Albert H. Gordon Lecture on Finance and Public Policy, Chertoff outlined what he called “structural obstacles” to improved homeland security. He cited, as an example, opposition to stiffer requirements for documentation when crossing U.S. borders even though use of phony documents by terrorists is a critical issue.

“Obviously, we have not had an occasion since 9/11 for someone to cross the border from Canada and Mexico and carry out a terrorist attack. So we’ve not yet had the actual experience of risk,” Chertoff said. “And yet … it should no longer be a mere matter of imagination to see how that vulnerability could have a tremendous cost to the country, a cost far greater perhaps than a little inconvenience to the people in transition who need documentation when crossing.”

He added, “The intense — understandably intense — hostility this measure gets from a small group who have an immediate cost threatens to overwhelm the greater good.”

Why, Chertoff asked his audience, was the United States taken by surprise by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when there had been ample warnings — including attacks on the USS Cole and American embassies in Africa — that U.S. soil was a target? Because back then, increased security measures seemed unnecessarily intrusive. “There was simply not the public will to move forward on these initiatives,” he said.

Sept. 11 did change everything, he said. “We went from imagining to experiencing a full attack.” Today, however, “I’m concerned we’re beginning to backslide by letting structural obstacles get in the way.”

“Anecdotal” stories of how “someone had a bad experience at the border” should not derail long-range measures, he said. Warning that America still faces a terrorist threat is not “fear-mongering,” he said, but “a necessary antidote” to complacency.

“This time, the push-back has not been cause for us to back down.”

Furthermore, the country needs to improve its infrastructure, Chertoff said, noting that there is no sense in protecting bridges that are in danger of collapsing on their own. But this means making tough decisions on determining prime terrorist targets. Not everyone will get a piece of the pie, he said. “Homeland security grants are not meant to be peanut butter spread evenly across the bread.”

In the Q&A period, Chertoff was pressed by Taufiq Rahmin, a second-year student at the Kennedy School, about the problems of “false positives” when a person is detained or tortured and then found to be free of terrorist links. Rahmin cited the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian who was apprehended in New York and sent to Syria where he says he was tortured before he won release. The Canadian government has apologized for its handling of the case; the United States has not.

Chertoff declined to discuss the details of the Arar case, although he intimated, when pressed by Rahmin, that there was more to the case than published information. Chertoff did say that “the greater the restraints you put on somebody, generally speaking, the greater responsibility to make sure you’re not making a mistake.”

After Chertoff’s talk, many students continued to discuss the issues he raised. “I wish that people would hear a little more regularly what he talked about in terms of the problems we have in our political process now — how so many of our decisions are made based on the short-term costs and benefits without looking to the future,” said Marcos Rosales, a first-year Kennedy student. In contrast, fellow student Emily Nielson said Chertoff seemed too reliant on calculations, not human costs. “I think that he is overly optimistic about the benefits that we’re going to get from any of the security provisions,” she said.