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Back to Archives | Back to February 2007 Contents 

The Future of Homeland Security: An Interview with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff

By Lois Pilant Grossman

Michael Chertoff
Michael Chertoff
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C.

omeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has had no shortage of fires to put out since his swearing in on March 3, 2005. He has dealt with the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and overseen the activities of the 22 agencies that make up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a job that has been described as “building an airplane while flying it at the same time.”

Chertoff is no stranger to the federal government and to the business of law and order. He served as U.S. circuit judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and as assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice. As assistant attorney general, he helped trace the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to the al Qaeda network and worked to increase information sharing in the FBI and with state and local officials. He also spent many years as a federal prosecutor in New Jersey and New York.

It is Chertoff’s background as a prosecutor that has enabled him to understand that “criminal cases almost always get made at the local level, and it’s in partnership with local and state police officials that the federal government—whether it be the FBI or DHS—is able to get the job done.”

Secretary Chertoff agreed to talk with veteran police writer Lois Pilant Grossman about DHS initiatives that are intended to strengthen that partnership and provide support to homeland security efforts at the state and local levels.

Grossman: In your speech at the IACP’s annual conference, the idea of a partnership between DHS and local law enforcement seemed to be a recurring theme. What do you believe is the current status of that partnership?

Chertoff: I think it’s good, although sometimes a little bit uneven. I think in the last year we’ve made a lot of progress. We had a meeting with a number of the police chiefs to find ways to further integrate our activities, and that includes, for example, locating more police intelligence analysts into our facility here at DHS so they can actually work with us and likewise embedding some of our analysts in the major cities’ fusion centers so we can work with them. We’re developing a fellowship program for senior managers to come in so they can understand our policy approach and they can expose us to their perspectives. We’re streamlining the clearance process so we accept, for the first time, other agency’s clearances. Those are the kinds of things that lead to a much better partnership. At the end of the day, we’re looking to have a national plan for fusion centers that points the way to a two-way flow of intelligence information.

Grossman: In your view, what are the police practices that are most critical in preventing a terrorist attack and protecting the targets of an attack?

Chertoff: I think there are a couple of things. The first is intelligence gathering, in the sense of being aware of what’s going on in the community, having police trained to see changes in behavior or other kinds of conduct that are suggestive of someone who might become a terrorist operative, being more focused on the problem of radicalization in the prisons, which is something we’re giving a lot of attention to now. I also think working with communities on making sure the private sector has an understanding of what they need to do to protect their assets in case of a terrorist attack. Not that a terrorist attack is around the corner at every moment, but I think there should be some general prudence about the kind of measures you ought to take, what you ought to be alert for in terms of suspicious behavior. This is one place where police can add value in terms of homeland security.

Grossman: Can you talk a little bit about the National Response Plan and its status? What is your picture of what it should ultimately look like and how it should work?

Chertoff: The National Response Plan is a template for how we would work with state and local first responders in the case of an incident of national significance. We recognize the primary responsibility is almost always going to rest with the local first responder unless a truly extraordinary thing happens, like a nuclear bomb going off. The plan is a method of coordinating incident management and response that recognizes that police and fire and emergency technicians and federal officials have separate chains of command but we need to be able to work together efficiently. Since our experience with the hurricanes in 2005, we’ve worked to refine the National Response Plan so we have a quicker and more efficient way to make sure we give law enforcement support to police chiefs. Part of that is working increasingly with the National Guard so they have the capability to supplement local law enforcement if there is an emergency situation.

Grossman: Congress’s restructuring of DHS and the transfer of a number of functions under the umbrella of FEMA has caused some concern in the law enforcement community, as I’m sure you know.

Chertoff: I do know, and I am very strongly committed to maintaining our funding and training and exercising across the entire spectrum of homeland security, which is prevention and protection as well as response, and very definitely includes law enforcement. In fact, we’re looking to bring some specialized law enforcement personnel into our grants and training function to make sure we are continuing to fully service their needs. What’s important for people to understand is the grants themselves did not change, and the policies for the grants will continue to include a significant emphasis on law enforcement prevention. Those policies will be formulated at a department level. I will personally make sure that the needs of law enforcement are given the full amount of weight. The change is more a matter of where the check gets cut and how the actual auditing and paperwork gets administered.

Grossman: Federal funding has been very valuable with regard to equipment purchases, training personnel, and the creation of regional multiagency partnerships. One concern, however, is that grant guidelines are crafted without input from local law enforcement, fire, or health. They say they would like to participate in the process of developing grant guidelines. Is that a possibility?

Chertoff: We do reach out, of course, to people in the various communities, including the law enforcement community for some general guidance, and I have good news in this respect. We’re going to get grant guidance out this month [December 2006], which is significantly earlier than before. This will give communities an opportunity to get their proposals in early enough that we can have one round of turnaround, where we get back to them if we have issues or criticisms or questions, and they can reformulate their proposal to meet the National Preparedness Goal. So there will be an opportunity, for the first time, for a kind of back-and-forth in a way that wasn’t possible when we were getting the grant guidance out right before the end of the fiscal year and you had one shot to get your grant proposal in and it was either pass or fail.

Grossman: I know you’ve been asked this question a million times, so here’s a million and one: Will there ever be grant funding available for sworn personnel?

Chertoff: That’s always been a real challenge. We’ve occasionally made some provision for overtime for personnel costs. For example, when we go to Code Orange we do allow overtime to be covered to a certain extent. We did Operation Stonegarden, where we allowed the border states to designate up to 25 percent of some of their law enforcement grants for personnel-related expenses when they’re working with border patrol. We have agreed to fund personnel costs for (nonsworn) analysts in the fusion centers. So we have made some exceptions, but what we don’t want to do is make operating expenses a matter of federal funding.

Grossman: You have the Interoperable Communications Technical Assistance Program (ICTAP) and you’re using scorecards to ensure communications will work when they’re needed. What do you have planned as a continuation of that program? For example, will technical assistance be provided to help agencies carry out some of these plans?

Chertoff: Let me divide the challenge into two areas. First is the technological challenge and the second is the governance challenge. We have made over $2 billion available in grants for communications bridging, or gateway, equipment that allows people to talk across different elements of the spectrum. That kind of grant funding will continue to be eligible. Another element is governance. Communities have to agree on some common rules of the road, which isn’t a question of money but a question of everybody getting in the room and signing on to a common plan about what codes you use and who gets to talk to whom and what the rules of the road are. The scorecards are going to help communities recognize that they have to get their people together and finally sign off on a governance plan. We are also looking at promulgating standards for the next generation of digital equipment, P25 equipment, so that when communities make acquisitions they’ll know which standards to seek.

Grossman: We know that the most effective way to detect terrorist activity is at the local level where police look at all crimes and the potential link those crimes may have to terrorist activity. How are DHS efforts integrating with the allcrimes concept at the local level?

Chertoff: Part of it is our training efforts and our fusion center initiative, which help train officers in what to look for—when something that looks like a garden-variety document fraud suggests something more sinister based upon what you may discover in searching somebody or in an interview. So that’s one outlet. We have an Office of Bomb Prevention that works with bomb squads to give them the latest information on emerging threats with IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. We’re also participating with the FBI in the JTTFs [joint terrorism task forces]. This gives police chiefs a forum to communicate their suspicions to federal law enforcement so we can assist in making a determination about whether there is a terrorist threat. It’s also training police to know the community, and to keep their ears to the ground and to cultivate leaders so that when something alarms members of the community, they have the comfort level to speak to the local police about it.

Grossman: It’s a whole new world out there after September 11, isn’t it?

Chertoff: It is. But I will tell you that if you look at what happened in London in 2005 and what nearly happened in 2006, increasingly we learn that, particularly in homegrown terrorism, that alertness by local citizens and local police and giving a tip-off to the intelligence authorities or federal authorities can really make a difference in uncovering something that could affect the country.

Grossman: You’ve said that DHS plans to have 20 fusion centers by the end of fiscal year 2007 and up to 35 centers by the end of fiscal year 2008. Will DHS provide continued support for sustainability of the centers?

Chertoff: I think there will be some support for sustainability. We provided more than $380 million to state and local government to support these centers, and we are going to have personnel in many of them. Obviously most of the personnel costs and things of that sort will have to be committed to by state and local authorities, but certainly in terms of continued training and supporting analysts, we have some ability to sustain that.

Grossman: Fusion centers are all about sharing information, yet there are still concerns about the lack of information sharing from federal to local. Remembering of course that sometimes there really isn’t any information to share, what or where are the sticking points?

Chertoff: Well, first of all I agree with you. I think there is sometimes a tendency to believe that there is information that doesn’t exist. But we do have a number of different systems. We have HSIN [Homeland Security Information Network] and we’re going to have HSDN [Homeland Security Data Network], which is a classified network that will be part of the fusion centers. Similarly when we have a threat about a particular area, our intelligence people usually communicate directly with the chief and the senior intelligence people in that area so they’re fully apprised. The chiefs in the cities that tend to be disproportionately subject to threat have a very robust ongoing relationship with our intelligence people in terms of communicating. We recognize the FBI has a parallel system, but the bureau tends to pass operational information for investigative purposes whereas we tend to be more focused on analytic information. The good news is that we’ve worked very closely with the bureau to make sure that when we put out a report or a warning it’s a joint product. It’s not a perfect system. Sometimes somebody gets out a little bit ahead of themselves and puts something out, in terms of it hasn’t been thoroughly approved. But I think the turnaround time for getting these kinds of things out and having them be jointly approved is much shorter than it was when I got on the job.

Grossman: I know you have some goals for 2007. Can you talk a little bit about those?

Chertoff: Let me break them into five basic categories. One is we want to increase our ability to keep bad people out of the country. We’ll do that by getting more information about people who want to come in—not deeply private information, but the kind of information a travel agent has, which helps us assess whether someone is connected with a known terrorist or whether there is a reason he needs to be questioned further. That’s a concept that’s going to be familiar to most of your police chiefs.

We also are in the process of rolling out a 10-print fingerprint capture system that will require everybody who comes to the United States from overseas—every foreigner—to give us 10 fingerprints at least once so we can run them against databases of latent prints that we pick up either here or overseas in safe houses or training camps. That is going to be a big step forward in identifying terrorists who want to come into the country, whose names we may not know but who have handled something or touched something in a training camp or a safe house.

Our second goal is to keep bad things out and that means we’re going to continue to extend our perimeter with respect to port security, like deploying radiation monitors so that by the end of next year virtually all containers that come into the country will go through radiation detection.

Third is protecting our infrastructure better, which means more focus on things like chemical plant security and more deployment of K9s and search teams in our transit infrastructure so we can protect our subways and trains. We’re also going to do behavioral pattern training for our TSA screeners so we can keep dangerous people off aircraft.

The fourth is continuing to build a response capability with modern computer tools that, for example, will let us bring communication capabilities to the areas where there is a major catastrophe that wipes out the existing communication system. Last is promoting intelligence sharing, not only horizontally across the federal government, but vertically with the local government as well.

Grossman: Can you back up a little bit and talk about behavioral training for TSA?

Chertoff: Right now airports have people who check your documents to make sure your ID matches your ticket. We want to replace those airport employees with trained screeners who will look at your behavior, look at your reactions, ask you a question or two so they can assess whether you are potentially someone who is hiding something. We’re piloting these kinds of programs now with a number of airports. It’s a technique we’ve used at our border for many years. It’s the kind of tool they use in Europe and Israel. It’s not profiling. It’s behavioral analysis. It looks at behavioral characteristics and analyzes who needs to be questioned further.

Grossman: It will take us a while to get used to that as travelers, don’t you think?

Chertoff: I think you’re right. But I think people do understand inconvenience for safety. What they want to be assured of is that there is a purpose to it, and so when we roll out a measure and people understand why we’re doing it or it makes sense, they’ll put up with some inconvenience. I think people are getting educated that this is one of the kinds of tools we need. Experienced police officers do this every day and they know how to do it the right way. That’s the kind of experience we want to bring into our airports.

Grossman: Is there anything else you would like to communicate to the readers of Police Chief magazine and to others in local law enforcement?

Chertoff: Yes, and I think it kind of bounces off the last thing we talked about. We recognize the importance of preserving liberty and privacy in this country. Nobody wants to give up our core values. But we also know that the public expects us to adapt, to deal with new threats. I think police chiefs who deal with these problems all the time understand the importance of adapting and being practical to make sure we preserve what is the most basic civil right, which is the right not to be blown up. As we get into debates about what’s appropriate in terms of information gathering, police chiefs need to get engaged in that debate because they have a lot of credibility and they understand from the ground up the kind of challenges we’re trying to deal with. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 2, February 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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