Chief in a Hurry

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Michael Chertoff's office is full of boxes. He's been the nation's Homeland Security chief for 30 days and still he hasn't paused to unpack. There are boxes in the corner, under his desk, stacked in front of the bay window. "They are kind of getting in the way of sitting down," Chertoff says. Not that sitting is a priority. Chertoff speed-walks to meetings where he peppers subordinates with pointed questions and blazes through topics he wants to cover. He has a bad habit, aides joke, of running ahead of schedule. "It takes all the energy I have just to keep up," says chief of staff John Woods.

Chertoff, 51, has started off with big ambitions, general and specific both. He's ordered a full-scale, 60- to 90-day review of the Department of Homeland Security. He says he plans to define its mission then adjust its operations accordingly, without regard for the existing structure. That would represent a break from the slow, evolutionary change that is the norm among Washington bureaucracies. Getting particular, Chertoff wants to bring common sense to three areas: how to spend homeland security money so it's concentrated on places terrorists are most likely to hit instead of all across the country, as the government does now; how to screen for travelers who may actually pose a risk; and how to divulge information about threats in ways that are useful and not gratuitously alarming. Implicitly criticizing his predecessor's handling of security alerts, Chertoff says wants to keep Americans alert but "guard against crying wolf."

To reform homeland security spending, Chertoff will have to take on powerful rural Senators who've grown accustomed to seemingly disproportionate slices of the pie. Today, 40% of the department's $40 billion budget is dispersed in equal share to the 50 states and the rest goes to states more or less on the basis of population. As a result, the federal government spends $28.22 annually on a resident of Wyoming and $15.72 on a citizen of New York. Instead, Chertoff wants to employ risk analysis—like the kind used in a DHS draft report inadvertantly placed on a Hawaii state government web site last week—to determine how to deploy money according to the potential death toll and economic impact of various attacks on likely targets. If resources are spread too thin, they are useless, says Chertoff: "One hazmat suit in every town does nobody any good." Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas has a different take. "If we are just safe in the urban areas and not in the heartland then America is not safe," he says. If Chertoff doesn't "pay close attention to the desires of Congress," Pryor warns, "he could very easily meet a lot of resistance." The secretary's retort: "Not everyone is going to be happy."

Chertoff wants to sharpen the focus at airport and border screening stations, too. He is pushing the expansion of registered traveler programs that would allow individuals to volunteer to have their past travel records checked out so that, barring a red flag, they can be processed quickly through airports and border crossings. "That gives us more resources to focus on people who we might have more questions about," he says.

As for issuing alerts, Chertoff says he doesn't want "to get up in front of the public and say the sky is falling if it's not." At the same time, he appreciates the value of a vigilant public. There have been recent cases, he says, in which a citizen "noticed something about the way people were purchasing or how they were behaving" and reported it to authorities. When those details were linked to another piece of intelligence "that gave us the opportunity to prevent another attack."

Since Chertoff's nomination was first announced, Washington insiders have been mystified as to why he gave up a lifetime appointment as a U.S. Court of Appeals Circuit Judge to take over an unwieldy new bureaucracy with limited power. Chertoff says the answer is simple: 9/11. In the aftermath of the attacks, he says he realized that to be a part of helping the country respond was "the most important challenge of my generation."

Barreling down the highway in the back of a black Ford Explorer, on his way to a meeting with immigration officials at Dulles airport, Chertoff is musing about why on Earth he took this job. "You don't take this job because you think you are going to wind up getting a pat on the back." He pauses and brings his hand up to his close-cropped beard. "It is the nature of the job that success is not really noticeable."