WASHINGTON – President Bush on Tuesday named Michael Chertoff (search), a federal appeals court judge and former Justice Department official, as his nominee to be the next Homeland Security secretary.
Chertoff, a prominent figure during the congressional Whitewater hearings, will have to be confirmed by the Senate before he can take over for retiring Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search).
Describing him as a "key leader in the War on Terror," Bush, in a Roosevelt Room announcement, said Chertoff has an "unwavering determination to protect the American people."
As head of the Justice Department's 800-member criminal division following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush said, "Mike helped trace the terrorist attacks to Al Qaeda. He understood immediately that the strategy in the War on Terror was to prevent attacks before they occur."
Chertoff said that if confirmed, "I will be proud to stand again with the men and women who form our front line against terror."
"Mr. President, I thank you for your leadership in protecting all of our families and our way of life. I appreciate the trust you have in me," he added.
'He Doesn't Back Off'
Chertoff was a U.S. attorney in New Jersey before he became special counsel for the Whitewater Committee (search) in the U.S. Senate. He followed that with a partnership in the law firm of Latham and Watkins, then joined the Justice Department as an assistant attorney general within the criminal division.
Chertoff has extensive knowledge of the workings of the FBI, as well as prosecution of terrorism cases.
He was the head of the Justice Department's criminal division from 2001 to 2003 until confirmed as an appeals court judge in 2003.
As the administration's top anti-terrorism prosecutor, he dealt with how to go after illegal immigrants possibly involved in terrorist activities and was involved in the prosecution of such high-profile cases as that of Zacarias Moussaoui (search).
Chertoff has also worked on combating cybercrime and was a member of former Attorney General Janet Reno's Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys (search). He earned his law degree from Harvard University. During more than 10 years as a federal prosecutor in Newark and Manhattan, Chertoff pursued political corruption and fraud in the health-care and banking industries.
Bush called Chertoff a "practical organizer, skilled manager and a brilliant thinker" and said he would greatly aid the United States in its aggressive pursuit of terrorists.
"Our nation is still at war, we're focused, we're taking decisive actions on the home front that are critical to winning this war," the president said, adding that Chertoff has "faced countless challenges and decisions and has helped to protect his fellow Americans while protecting their civil liberties."
Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, said during a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event on Tuesday that Chertoff brings a "remarkable record in the criminal justice world."
"He is a tremendously respected manager, policy individual, crime fighter and someone that will rally the law enforcement community," Card said.
"I was impressed with how he recognized how September 2001 changed America and the obligations that we have. So I think he is the right person to run that huge department that is undergoing significant management challenges."
Former Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who was the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention, called Chertoff a "superb choice."
"I cannot imagine, after what this man has shown what he can do, that there would be any significant objection at all," Miller told FOX News. "This is a very brave attorney but this is also one tough customer when it comes to dealing with lawless people."
Two former FBI officials told FOX News they believed Chertoff would sail through the confirmation process.
Harry "Skip" Brandon, a former FBI deputy assistant director of counterintelligence and counterterrorism, told FOX News that Chertoff's greatest strength is his unrelenting pursuit of terrorists.
"He doesn't back off," Brandon said, adding that Chertoff would "absolutely demand" that DHS evolve from a newly-formed department into a well-oiled terror-fighting agency.
Bill Gavin, a former assistant FBI director in charge of the bureau's New York office, worked with Chertoff investigating the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and described him as "an exceptionally bright guy."
'Instinct for the Jugular'
Some of the men implicated in the 1993 attack were living in New Jersey while Chertoff was an attorney in the state. The truck bomb detonated in a parking garage underneath the World Trade Center was also built in New Jersey.
"[Chertoff] performed and he worked extremely well with the Southern District of New York," Gavin told FOX News. "There was never any pushing or shoving or any territorial domain — he was just about getting the job done."
"I think he'd be a great, great homeland security director," Gavin added.
Added Republican Rep. Chris Cox of California, chairman of the Select Committee on Homeland Security: "Mike has always had an instinct for the jugular and there's a lot of instinct around the capillary at the Department of Homeland Security" to go after terrorists and potential weapons of mass destruction.
Cox told FOX News he sees no stumbling blocks in the way of Chertoff being confirmed and, in fact, hearings to do so could be scheduled early, "because there isn't anything more important to the country than having a Homeland Security secretary on the job."
Bernard Kerik (search) — the New York City police commissioner on Sept. 11, 2001 — was the president's first pick for the DHS job, but withdrew his name from consideration after news surfaced that he had had an illegal nanny along with other questionable dealings.
Ridge, whom Bush said Tuesday "has the gratitude of his entire nation," announced his resignation Nov. 30. He plans to remain in the job until Feb. 1, unless the Senate confirms his successor earlier.
"Secretary Tom Ridge has performed magnificently. ... He leaves some very deep shoes to fill," Chertoff said.
While many praised Bush's latest pick, Democratic strategist Rich Masters said Chertoff is "a very hardcore, partisan choice" and that the president should perhaps have chosen someone more in the middle of the road.
"That's disappointing, I think, to a lot of us, especially on the other side of the aisle," Masters said. He conceded that since Chertoff had already been confirmed for three other positions by the Senate, he would likely be again.
One man who could hold up Chertoff's confirmation, Senate Judiciary Committee (search) member Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had only praise for the judge.
Schumer, in a press release, said Chertoff "has the resume to be an excellent homeland security secretary, given his law-enforcement background and understanding of New York's and America's neglected homeland-security needs."
Schumer said Chertoff called him early Tuesday, and that he pressed the about-to-be-nominee to promise that New York would get its fair share of homeland security funds.
Chertoff was receptive though noncommittal, Schumer said, adding that the two agreed to sit down in the very near future to discuss homeland-security priorities for New York and the country.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said "a thorough confirmation process" is vital to make sure Chertoff — as any presidential nominee — is the right person for the job.
"There is no greater role for our government than securing our homeland and we will continue to work with the administration to do whatever we can to keep our country safe," Reid said in a statement.
"I think this is the absolute perfect nomination," said GOP strategist Mark McKinnon. "This is a very tough, very aggressive prosecutor who has been working on homeland security since 9/11 and before ... I think he's going to hit the ground running ... I think Americans are going to feel very good about this choice."
FOX News' Julie Asher contributed to this report.