WASHINGTON – Having been in office for just over a year and facing a typical week marked by more downs than ups in the news media, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is plowing through the mass of bad publicity and accomplishing the goals of securing the country, say supporters.
"He is absolutely focused like a laser on the job and he doesn't let the daily ups and downs in the press get to him too much," said Brian Besanceney, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Homeland Security.
But for all the plowing he has done, Chertoff is so far not reaping too much in the way of credit.
Last week, the Homeland Security secretary preened over a massive federal sting on employers of illegal workers, announced by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, one of 22 agencies under the DHS umbrella. But critics complained that the action was mainly a facade since most of the illegals were quickly and quietly released.
"I predicted this before Secretary Chertoff ... made his big dog and pony announcement about these things," said syndicated columnist and FOX News contributor Michelle Malkin. "It seems to me if we're going to be all clamoring for comprehensive immigration reform, the nice buzz phrase everybody's using now, [ICE] should end catch and release before we do anything else. The deportation system is absolutely a disgrace."
Earlier in the month, Chertoff announced an active effort to get Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinators into hurricane-prone states before the hurricane season, which begins June 1. FEMA is also in DHS.
"Secretary Chertoff was down here working with the governor just to make sure that communications are clear, that equipment will be pre-positioned, and that the communications system, which failed last time, will be up and running should there be another catastrophic storm," President Bush said Thursday while touring New Orleans.
Despite the effort, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday released a report highly critical of FEMA's post-Hurricane Katrina relief operations. Among the report's 86 recommendations, one proposed scrapping FEMA completely in favor of a new national relief agency.
"FEMA has become a symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy in which the American people have completely lost faith. There are many good people who work at FEMA. But they have lacked the leaders, the tools, the systems, and the budget to be effective," Committee chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Thursday during a press conference on the panel's report.
At that same press conference, committee vice chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., had no shortage of criticism for Chertoff specifically.
"Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff and the department he led lacked a basic understanding of the federal government's blueprint for responding to a catastrophe, a disaster just like Katrina, which is the National Response Plan and, in fact, hadn't even assigned some of DHS' response obligations to any one in the department before Katrina hit," Lieberman said.
"On the days leading to landfall, neither Secretary Chertoff nor his top aides carried a clear sense of urgency, and thereby lost precious time in readying themselves and the government's resources to respond to almost certain disaster," he added.
For his part, Chertoff stood his ground Thursday in the face of criticism.
"I'm interested here, a month before hurricane season, not in engaging (in) moving the boxes around on the organizational chart. I'm interested in making sure we've got the planning finished," he said.
A Long, Grueling Year
Since Chertoff was plucked by President Bush last year from a judgeship on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia to the top post at DHS, the agency has been besieged by bad news.
At the end of August, Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and FEMA was blamed for slow and ineffective recovery efforts. Former FEMA director Michael Brown, who says he has been vindicated by the Senate report, frequently blames Chertoff for hindering his ability to direct the federal response. He has called for Chertoff's resignation.
In February, Chertoff acknowledged that he had not been briefed by aides until the news hit that his agency gave approval to a deal that would have handed over management of terminals in six U.S. ports to the foreign government-controlled Dubai Ports World. Chertoff and the administration maintain that the deal had not raised any red flags that would have triggered notification at the very top of the department.
Dubai Ports World eventually backed out of the deal, but not until the controversy generated by both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill called into question DHS' role in the deal, and of general port security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“[It] demonstrated an incompetence I found breathtaking,” Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., in a March speech to the International Firefighters Association in Washington D.C., said of the ports deal approval.
More recently, DHS has been rocked by the arrest of its chief spokesman, Brian Doyle, on 23 felony counts of seducing a minor over the Internet. Chertoff told reporters he didn’t believe that Doyle's conduct, based on the allegations, reflected a security breach. He promised that thorough background checks are conducted on all employees.
"From time to time, there will be instances when misconduct occurs," Chertoff said.
Meanwhile, critics continue to complain about the resources the agency has allocated for the nation's first responders, and question why a number of vacancies has yet to be filled at the top of the department. Speculation has also been rampant about DHS' ability to handle an outbreak of bird flu in the United States.
"Its frustrating to get specifics on how [DHS' response] is going to work," said one Democratic congressional aide who did not want to be named. "When the administration comes here and talks to staff and members and present the plan, it’s incredibly vague."
Last month, the department's troubles sparked rumors that Chertoff's days might be numbered -- a contention that has been consistently dismissed by the White House, and so far, doesn't appear to bear any truth.
The Department of Homeland Security opened its doors in 2003 with 180,000 employees from 22 existing federal agencies. Among the better known are the U.S. Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, FEMA, the U.S Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration.
The agency's first secretary, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, resigned in February 2005 after earning mixed reviews for his job performance. Some said he was never given the proper authority with which to command such a large bureaucracy. Others said he did the best he could despite the kinks of a new, often unwieldy department.
The administration's first nominee for the job, former New York City police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, withdrew his name even before his confirmation hearing after facing questions about numerous personal and legal scandals.
When Chertoff was nominated in the wake of this public relations embarrassment, expectations were high for him, say observers. But whether he was the right man for the job or a victim of circumstances is now up for debate.
"The problem is not Mike Chertoff. You have a bureaucracy with far too many missions, it's far too big, with too many folks trying to tell it what to do," said former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Georgia, who argues that FEMA should not be a part of DHS.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, said DHS has so far not lived up to its goals, particularly in securing the nation's critical infrastructure after Sept. 11.
"I think a lot of us have been critical of the Department of Homeland Security in a number of areas," he said, adding that taking FEMA out of DHS is so far not on the table.
As for Chertoff, Thompson said, "Whether we think he's up to the job or not, he's there."
Biden took a tougher tone in his speech to the firefighters. "We have become dangerously, dangerously incompetent," he said, talking about the government's response to Katrina, the Dubai Ports World deal and what he says is a short-changing of equipment and other needs for first responders, the emergency personnel who arrive first on the scene at disasters and other crises.
"We need a wholesale change in priorities, and a wholesale change in personnel," he added, suggesting "Chertoff be given his walking papers."
But supporters like James Carafano, homeland security expert at The Heritage Foundation, say that Chertoff can transcend the din of partisan attacks to ensure the agency stays on course.
The biggest problem with DHS right now, said Carafano, is "the fundamental organization and ability to pull all the pieces together." Chertoff is aware of that and ready to make the necessary changes, he said.
Carafano added that while members of Congress are willing to "take cheap shots" at Chertoff, no serious effort is being mounted to get rid of him.
"I think most of them get it … and they know he gets it," said Carafano. "There's more good will than you can imagine."
Meanwhile, Besanceney said the department is busy filling its vacancies -- most of the candidates are awaiting congressional approval -- and is preparing for the upcoming hurricane season.
In a meeting with Gulf Coast emergency managers in Orlando on April 12, Chertoff announced plans to put FEMA coordinators in place before the storms hit during the peak season.
"I think some parts (of the Gulf Coast) are readier than others," Chertoff said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I think this has been a great wake-up call."
Besanceney said the rumor mill on Chertoff’s demise might be turning, but the president has given no indication he has lost confidence in the secretary's abilities.
“We understand that [rumors] happen from time to time, but he knows where he stands with the one person in town who matters,” Besanceney said.