An Interview with Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff
Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff boasts a decorated career in public service. Prior to joining President George W. Bush’s Cabinet in 2005, Chertoff served as a judge for the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and later as Assistant U.S. Attorney General. Chertoff was instrumental in indicting members of the Five Families during the Mafia Commission Trial and convicting embattled Jersey City mayor Gerald McCann on fraud charges. As Homeland Security Secretary, Chertoff was a co-author of the Patriot Act, the controversial legislation passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks that expanded government surveillance and search and seizure capabilities. Chertoff spoke with the Carolina Political Review about his experience in law and national security, his views on the immigration debate, and why he feels young people need to get involved in politics. The following is a transcript of Chertoff’s interview with 2018-2019 Editor-in-Chief Parker Barth, edited for clarity.
Parker Barth: Before joining the Bush Administration as Secretary of Homeland Security, you worked as a United States Attorney and also clerked for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. You’ve brought cases against members of the Five Families of New York and executives involved in the Enron scandal. What was the most fascinating aspect of your career in law?
Michael Chertoff: I guess I’d say that we did big trials like the Mafia Commission Trial, or, you know, convicting managers participating in bank fraud. Things like that where challenging and exciting and dramatic. When I came to the Department of Justice in 2001, the year of 9/11, it was, of course, a much different thing. It was the most consequential thing I worked on, and it was really about protecting the country. That really shifted the course of my career.
Parker: What was it like to play a role in authoring the Patriot Act? Considering it was such a far-reaching piece of legislation that changed a lot about how the federal government addresses issues of national security, what was it like to be involved in that process?
Chertoff: So actually, people misunderstand the act. It’s actually a pretty plain piece of legislation that did two things. It essentially eliminated the restrictions on the ability of prosecutors to see what intelligence agencies had collected so that they could connect the dots. The other thing is that it made a technological symmetry between what you could do, for example, with drug cases or what you could do with terrorism cases so that there was no reason that you could use those findings to capture a marijuana dealer but you couldn’t use them to capture a terrorist. Conceptually, it got interpreted in some ways, maybe more broadly than originally anticipated, but there’s also a lot of myth around it.
Parker: One of the main criticisms of the act is that, even if it’s not the case, a lot of people perceive it to be an infringement on some of the civil liberties that we have as everyday American citizens. What would be your response to that?
Chertoff: It’s not — actually, if you see what it authorizes, it’s the same stuff that we’ve had for hundreds of years. You have a warrant to collect certain kinds of information. Metadata, which is like — for example, if you made a call and you sent an email, the address from which it comes and the address to which it goes — for decades, that’s been something available on a subpoena in an ordinary criminal case. So applying that to a terrorism case doesn’t really change what the civil liberties were…it just created a different context.
Parker: You recently spoke on the debate around the potential of a wall being built on the U.S.-Mexico border, and you said that, at least in your perspective, it was more of a symbolic effort by President Trump’s administration than one that might be effective in accomplishing what it’s meant to do. Can you talk a little more about that?
Chertoff: When I was in office, there were over 600 miles of barriers. There are some parts of the southern border where barriers are useful. If the distance between the border and, for example, a big town or highway is very short, so that people can run across and then quickly disappear, a barrier doesn’t stop them from doing so. But much of the border has mountains or wide rivers, and a fence or a wall would be a total waste of time and money. And what you really want is detection equipment — radar, other kinds of sensors, and the ability to intercept people by using helicopters and Border Patrol to come and arrest people. So the idea of spending all this money on hundreds of miles of additional wall would be like throwing it away. I do believe in border security, but to me, you want what works. It’s like how 70 years ago, the French built a beautiful thing called the Maginot Line, fortresses were all along the border, and during World War II, the Germans just went right around it, and they conquered France. This is kind of the Maginot Line of border security.
Parker: It sounds like you think that a lot of people are misunderstanding what would actually be the most effective solution. Given your experience in that area, are you familiar with anything that a lot of people might be missing in the discussion?
Chertoff: I think that you need to look at illegal migration as part of the system. And that starts with determining what pushes people to try to migrate to the U.S. without permission, and what draws them in. And you’ve gotta view each part of the problem. If you try to get a hold of only one part, you’re gonna fail. So I’d start by looking at, for example, people fleeing because they want asylum. You’ve got to work to build up the economies of the countries people are fleeing from, because no amount of deterrence is going to work if the person you’re fleeing from says they’re gonna kill you…you’re gonna run. If you can get law and order in those states, that’s gonna reduce a lot of the pressure. Likewise, enforcing the law against employers hiring people who don’t have work authorization would eliminate a lot of the economic attraction. Once you have those in place, the amount of barrier you need is relatively modest, because you’ve changed the major elements of what drives illegal migration.
Parker: What exactly inspired your transition from the legal field to focusing more on security issues?
Chertoff: 9/11. When I was there on 9/11, we had to suddenly build a counterterrorism architecture, and then I spent a couple years really working with my colleagues to refine that and to figure out what worked. Having done that, when the president said, “Can you come in and run the Department of Homeland Security?” — I couldn’t say no to that.
Parker: What would you say is the most pressing issue of national security at this time?
Chertoff: I’d say that right now, cybersecurity is probably the issue we need to be paying the most attention to.
Parker: Can you expand a little bit more on that?
Chertoff: I mean, we’re seeing more and more use of cyberspaces to steal intellectual property and valuable financial assets. But it actually can be destructive and, as we’ve seen in places like the Ukraine, can be used to shut down power plants or really cause loss of life. And it’s becoming a domain of warfare.
Parker: On a similar note, you’ve said you’re not exactly an advocate for the backdoor solution to encrypted phones. Why not?
Chertoff: As I understand it, sometimes law enforcement gets frustrated because they can’t crack an encrypted message, but if you weaken encryption, it’s weak for everybody. And that means you’ve now made everybody vulnerable in order to make it easier to catch a few people. I think that’s a bad tradeoff.
Parker: What would you say to the young people interested in public service but discouraged by the current political climate?
Chertoff: My message is really this: it’s your generation that has to get involved. We’ve had ups and downs in the past — I remember when I was in junior high school, in the late sixties, there were assassinations and riots. I thought things were pretty grim, but we worked our way out of it. I think we need to get everybody involved — one thing you can’t do is be a spectator. I’d encourage you all to get into public service.