The nomination of federal judge Michael Chertoff to be secretary of the Homeland Security Department received mixed reaction Tuesday, with supporters saying they look forward to working with him and critics expressing concern about his track record on civil liberties and his ability to manage one of the largest federal bureaucracies.
President Bush nominated Chertoff to be the second secretary of DHS, which was created three years ago through one of the largest government reorganizations in 50 years. If confirmed, Chertoff will have the mammoth task of managing a department with 180,000 employees that still is grappling with merging 22 agencies while juggling domestic and international responsibilities.
"When Mike is confirmed by the Senate, the Department of Homeland Security will be led by a practical organizer, a skilled manager and a brilliant thinker," Bush said Tuesday.
Bush noted that Chertoff was previously confirmed three times by the Senate. The president's previous pick to head the department - former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik - withdrew his nomination citing problems with tax payments to a nanny.
Since 2003, Chertoff has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which covers Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and the Virgin Islands. He was confirmed 88 to 1 by the Senate for a seat on the court.
"If confirmed, it will be my privilege to serve with the thousands of men and women who stand watch across the country and overseas, protecting our security and promoting our freedom," the nominee said Tuesday.
Chertoff has largely flown under the public radar even though he was a central figure in shaping Bush administration policies in the war on terrorism after Sept. 11. He is the former chief of the Justice Department's criminal division and helped create and implement the 2001 USA Patriot Act.
In the months immediately following the 9/11 attacks, Chertoff oversaw the government's effort to round up, detain and question hundreds of Arabs and Muslims without charges, bail or trials. As one of the government's top criminal prosecutors, he also led arguments in the prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with the 9/11 attacks. Chertoff argued that Moussaoui should not have a constitutional right to question enemy combatants held overseas.
Chertoff most recently served on a panel of current and former federal officials, judges and lawyers that proposed new rules on assassinations, surveillance, detentions, interrogations and military tribunals.
The task force, convened by Harvard University and called the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, concluded that the government should alter its policy for using military commissions to prosecute war crimes and foreign suspects. The panel defended the Patriot Act and said the government should have the ability to hold suspects for up to two years without trial, but supported laws banning torture. It also said that harsh interrogation methods should be spelled out by the executive branch, and any use of them should be reported to congressional committees.
Chertoff also is a former assistant attorney general at the Justice Department. In the mid-1990s, he was the Republicans' special counsel for the Senate committee that investigated the Whitewater affair involving former President Clinton.
Chertoff's nomination was greeted favorably on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
"I have the utmost respect for Mike," said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif. "He will be the strong and effective leader that the Department of Homeland Security needs."
"His experience in counterterrorism at Justice has prepared him well, and his capacity to quickly master other new areas of his responsibilities is boundless," Cox said, adding that he has known Chertoff for almost 30 years.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, also welcomed the nomination. Lieberman said, however, that Chertoff "will face significant challenges" to improve the department's operations and set clear security policies.
"The department is still struggling to integrate its many component parts into a well-organized machine," Lieberman said. "It has not yet articulated a clear homeland security strategy. And it is behind in its work to catalog and assess threats to the nation's core energy, telecommunications, water, transportation and financial networks. High turnover and scarce resources are partially to blame."
Reaction was more mixed outside Capitol Hill.
Mark Roth, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, said there couldn't be a worse time for somebody to come into the department.
"In all candor, at this exact time, in that agency, there probably isn't a worse job on the planet," Roth said. "If I were a personal friend, I would tell him don't leave the judiciary. He is walking into a complete hornet's nest at the worst possible time."
Roth said Chertoff will face a series of management challenges, such as infighting between bureaus over limited resources, the implementation of controversial new personnel regulations, financial disarray, and what to do with disputed polices, such as One Face at the Border. Roth added that several key senior managers are leaving the department, which makes Chertoff's job all the more difficult.
"Somebody has to do it. We don't know that he has the background," Roth said. "We want to work with him, and we hope that he'll be open to working with us."
Some civil rights advocates, however, were discouraged by Chertoff's nomination.
The American Civil Liberties Union described Chertoff's nomination as "worrisome."
The ACLU urged the Senate to exercise its powers to explore Chertoff's record and the impact it will have on civil liberties.
ACLU legislative counsel Timothy Edgar noted that Chertoff and attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales were key among the architects of the administration's early policies for the war on terrorism.
"We've got the legal team that has been responsible for abridging our civil rights now being in charge of the agencies that need to safeguard our rights," Edgar said.
James Carafano, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, praised the nomination.
He acknowledged that the administration apparently erred on the side of being safe after the experience with Kerik by picking somebody who could be confirmed. But he said Chertoff should be able to "hit the ground running" and has experience dealing with Congress. He also believes Chertoff's background will help DHS prioritize law enforcement to prevent attacks, rather than trying respond if another attack occurs.
"I think he'll make a really good contribution," Carafano said. "It's exactly the kind of nominee that should have been picked."