Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Imprisoned Border Patrol Agents

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," February 13, 2007, that has been edited for clarity.

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BILL O'REILLY, HOST: In the "Impact" segment tonight, as you know, two border patrol agents were convicted of felonies in connection with shooting an illegal alien dope dealer near the Texas border. One of the men, Ignacio Ramos, has now been beaten in a Mississippi prison. The Border Patrol falls under the authority of Homeland Security.

And joining us now from Washington, the chief of that agency, Michael Chertoff.

Can you do anything to protect these two agents?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: You know, Bill, these two agents were charged. They were convicted by a Texas jury. They obviously still have their appeals ahead of them.

Right now, I think the Bureau of Prisons, which is not in my department, has to take the steps to at least offer them the opportunity to go into protective custody. They may or may not choose to do that. But that's the normal way we protect people who are law enforcement agents, who are convicted and sent to prison.

O'REILLY: OK. But obviously, this hasn't worked because the BOP has not done it. The warden, Constance Reese in Yazoo City, didn't protect Mr. Ramos.

And I'm just telling you that somebody in the Bush administration's got to protect these guys. If God forbid one of them dies, I'm telling you, Mr. Secretary...

CHERTOFF: Bill, listen...

O'REILLY: ...it's going to be an — it's already a scandal. It's brewing on an enormous scandal.

CHERTOFF: Well, I think everybody agrees that we have to offer these two individuals protective custody. Now what I don't know is whether one of them turned it down, initially...

O'REILLY: No, he didn't. He was thrown in there because he basically had no choice other than to be in solitary confinement.

I'm just asking you as a professional to do what you can.

CHERTOFF: I certainly will.

O'REILLY: All right. Now you've been criticized by the ACLU, which makes a living out of criticizing Homeland Security in this country, for these detention centers that you now are operating for captured illegal aliens. So are they as bad as the "gulags" the ACLU is telling us they are?

CHERTOFF: Bill, these detention facilities are designed and operated to be as humane as possible.

Now let's be clear. We are holding families who come across the border illegally so that we can send them back within a matter of weeks.

If we were to release them the way some of our critics want us to do, they would simply flee and we would never see them again.

O'REILLY: Right.

CHERTOFF: So we have to be tough. But we're tough in a way that's humane.

O'REILLY: All right, so describe what is it the Hobbs Center you'vs got down there?

CHERTOFF: It's the Hutto Center in Texas.

O'REILLY: Hutto.

CHERTOFF: It is a converted jail facility. Inside, we don't lock the doors. The doors are monitored with various kinds of electronic devices. There are guards, but they don't carry guns. There are three square meals a day. I've looked at the menus myself. And while they're a little heavy on the starch, nobody's going to go hungry eating those meals.

O'REILLY: OK. How many people are down in the Hutto Center?

CHERTOFF: We've got several hundred people. There are families, a lot of single mothers and children. A few men.

O'REILLY: Do they all have places to sleep and everything? Is it overcrowded?

CHERTOFF: Everybody has a place to sleep. It's two to a room. There's classroom instruction for the kids several hours a day. There are games to play. There's recreation activities.

O'REILLY: And you let the press in to see all this, right?

CHERTOFF: We brought the press in.

O'REILLY: OK. So it's not the gulag the ACLU wants Americans to think it is. You're going on record as saying it's a facility that is humane, that looks out for these people until you can get them back to their country.

CHERTOFF: Absolutely right.

O'REILLY: All right. I'm taking your word for it.

[The facility in] Guantanamo Bay, which I have been to. Now I don't have to take your word for this, because I eyeballed it. When I went down there, it was professionally run. Obviously, they could have cleaned it up and you know, stopped beating the prisoners. And as soon as I left, they could have started beating them again.

But it didn't look that kind of situation to me. It looked like it was professionally run. However, you're still taking a hit all over the world. And in the United States, you guys are the concentration camp guys. What say you?

CHERTOFF: Well, the military has allowed the international Red Cross into the facility.

O'REILLY: In fact, they have an office that I saw on the island.

CHERTOFF: And you know, Congress has sent delegations down. Journalists have been down there. So clearly, the government has been as transparent as it can be about the conditions.

Now look, I think the president has said he would love to close Guantanamo.

Somehow these other countries don't want to take their citizens back.

O'REILLY: Yes, they don't want them back. I mean, they try to repatriate. But look, I only have about a minute-and-a-half left with you. And I really need an honest answer. You're an honest guy, but you're also in the bureaucracy and I understand that.

But look, what is it that in America, where you know we're fighting people who want to kill us, why are these people so determined to undermine the illegal alien detentions at Guantanamo Bay? Why? Did you ever think about it?

CHERTOFF: Bill, I think a lot of people have gotten complacent. I think that 9/11 is five years past. We have not had a successful attack in this country.

But rather than viewing that as encouraging us to keep doing what they're doing, some people say, you know, we ought to abandon the whole thing and go back to pre-9/11 thinking. I don't think we can afford to do that anymore.

O'REILLY: But it's got to be more than that. Because the hatred directed at you and the Bush administration for your policies of no more "catch and release" for illegals, and to keep these people in Guantanamo Bay until we fully vet them, not let just them out, the hatred direct to you is staggering.

CHERTOFF: Well, let me say this. I will not apologize for protecting Americans. I'm not going to apologize for putting as first priority keeping Americans safe. I don't think the administration will.

Obviously, we want to be humane and we want to be fair, but job one is keeping Americans safe from harm.

O'REILLY: So, you're conscience is clear. You're not going to be someday charged with anything crazy?

CHERTOFF: My conscience is clear.

O'REILLY: All right, Mr. Secretary. We appreciate you coming on. Thank you.

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