Q-and-A with Secretary Michael Chertoff, Department of Homeland Security

Q: What are your plans after Jan. 20, 2009?

I am looking forward to taking a break and then taking on new challenges. I have not made a decision yet. Until Jan. 20, the department is focused on a seamless and safe transition, and I am committed to assisting my successor and her team in any way I can.

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?

I am not sure, but I would like to stay involved in the issues I've been working on as Secretary.

Q: What is the most important lesson that you have learned as secretary of Homeland Security?

I have learned that all too often in government, particularly with elected officials, it is easy to delay making difficult decisions because sometimes the consequences and benefits of those decisions may not be realized for years down the road. There is a tendency to only want to act on things that provide an immediate benefit. It can be hard to convince people to confront long-term challenges, particularly when they are not very glamorous — for examples, roads, levees, etc.

This is about leadership. That means not looking backward at what has already happened, but looking ahead to the possibility of a catastrophic disaster that is yet to happen and making cost-benefit-driven plans to reduce our vulnerability to that disaster.

Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as secretary?

Working under the president to keep the country safe.

Also, we have worked hard to restore public credibility in the government's commitment to securing the borders. For decades, the federal government failed to live up to the American public's expectation that it would enforce immigration laws. During my tenure, we have built hundreds of miles of fencing along our nation's southern border and doubled the size of the Border Patrol. For the first time in decades, illegal immigration is on the decline. We've arrested record numbers of illegal aliens, including more than 11,000 gang members and 34,000 fugitives, and deported more than 340,000 illegal aliens in the past year.

Each of these achievements is a testament to the selfless spirit of the men and women who work every day to keep this nation safe. It has been a pleasure to work alongside the 218,000 employees of this department. The progress we have made in stepping up law enforcement and securing our borders is a direct result of their contributions.

Q: What advice will you give your successor?

I would urge my successor to resist the temptation or the pressure to reorganize the department. We have already reorganized much of the department and worked to create a horizontally integrated system that allows for cooperation and information sharing. When you reorganize a structure, you essentially freeze everything. I encourage the next leadership of the department to try to resist any reorganization for a few years to make sure that existing structures are being used to the best of their ability.

I have known Gov. [Janet] Napolitano [D] for years and have tremendous respect for her. She has demonstrated sound judgment and strong leadership in Arizona and is an excellent choice for secretary. I look forward to working with her as she prepares for this responsibility.

Q: What would you recommend that the next administration do to keep America safe?

I would recommend a continued focus on low probability-high consequence threats like biological and chemical weapons and WMDs. It is critical that investments are made now so that five or 10 years down the road, when terrorist capabilities may have increased, we can detect these types of threats at our borders, better secure those hazardous materials already within our country, and deploy the most advanced response capabilities to state, local and federal officials.

Q: Have you ever been fearful for your life while secretary?

No.

Q: Are the windows in your home all closed up for security reasons? (Chertoff’s security personnel drew all the shades and curtains when he had dinner at our house, the first time that any guest of ours had made such arrangements.)

No, not really. The Secret Service makes decisions as they relate to security at the residences of their protectees. The employees of the Secret Service consistently display unmatched professionalism in ensuring the safety of their protectees without unreasonably restricting their daily lives and routines. I have a high degree of appreciation for the agents on my detail and the Service as a whole.


Q: What do you do to stay fit and healthy?

I make the time to run about three miles three to five times per week, even when I am on travel. I find running to be a great outlet that lets me clear my mind and think strategically about long-range issues.

Q: How has your time as secretary changed you?

I wouldn't say it's necessarily changed me, but it has reinforced and better informed certain views I already held. Two specific issues stand out.

First, my time as secretary has underpinned my belief in the work ethic, intelligence and capability of civil servants. I have worked in both the public and private sector and have had the privilege of working alongside some of the most competent and talented individuals during my tenure as secretary. DHS employees demonstrate an unwavering dedication to a very high calling — protecting the American people. I rest easy knowing they are there, standing watch and keeping us safe.

Second, I learned during my time as secretary the importance of standing my ground against special interests when implementing security measures. In this job, you must be prepared to deal with pushback from interest groups of all types. It is not a job for someone seeking popularity. You accept this responsibility because you are willing to do everything within reason to make the American people safer, regardless of whose feathers you may ruffle along the way.

Q: What would you advise high school and college students to study to prepare to be competent in a 21st-century workforce?

It is critical that the next generation of leaders has a solid understanding of different cultures around the world. If we are to protect this country, we must win a contest of ideas and gain the respect of men and women around the world. This year the National Security Internship brought Arabic-speaking students into internships in DHS and FBI intelligence offices. These are the types of programs that will prove invaluable in educating future generations of leaders. The federal government is always seeking the best and the brightest, and I would encourage any high school or college student to embark on a career as a civil servant.


Kathy Kemper is founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership and civility locally, nationally and in the world community.

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