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Bush Selects U.S. Judge for Homeland Security

Times Staff Writer

President Bush on Tuesday selected Michael Chertoff, who helped formulate the administration’s controversial legal strategy after Sept. 11, as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Chertoff, 51, a federal appellate court judge, was head of the Justice Department’s criminal division at the time of the terrorist attacks.

“In all of his roles, Mike has shown a deep commitment to the cause of justice and an unwavering determination to protect the American people,” Bush said at a White House ceremony with Chertoff.

“Mike has also been a key leader in the war on terror.”

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Chertoff spoke of his experience working with the federal agencies that responded to the “deadliest single attack on American civilians” and said that, if confirmed, he would “be proud to stand again with the men and women who form our front line against terror.”

His nomination completes the restructuring of Bush’s second-term Cabinet; it comes a month after the president’s first choice for the job, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, withdrew from consideration, citing the unclear immigration status of a former nanny.

Chertoff is seen as a safe pick because he has gone before the Senate for confirmation three times -- as U.S. attorney for New Jersey in 1990, as assistant attorney general in 2001 and as a federal appellate judge in 2003.

As Homeland Security secretary, Chertoff would take on the challenge of defending against the possibility of another terrorist attack while trying to finish the job of putting together the sprawling department -- assembled two years ago from 22 agencies with vastly different missions, including protecting air travelers, guarding borders and coasts and implementing immigration laws.

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Even some of his supporters questioned whether he would be up to the massive management task.

“His big testing point will be that he ... has never tried to run anything remotely as big as this gargantuan, never-quite-put-together Homeland Security Department,” said Philip B. Heymann, a Harvard law school professor who served as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. “That ... would be a big challenge even if you’d been the head of General Motors.”

Still, Heymann described Chertoff as “a superb choice. He’s got the brains, he’s got the temperament, he’s got the toughness and he’s got the decency and the honesty,”

Democratic and Republican senators praised Chertoff’s qualifications and predicted that he would be confirmed by the Senate to replace Tom Ridge, the first person to hold the Homeland Security post.

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Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that will conduct the confirmation hearings, described Chertoff as “a key figure in the nation’s legal efforts to fight terrorism.”

Her Democratic counterpart on the committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, said he welcomed the nomination and called Chertoff “a respected lawyer and law enforcer.”

Sen. Jon Corzine, a Democrat from Chertoff’s home state of New Jersey, called the nominee “one of the most able people and public servants I have ever known” and praised his role in crafting the early strategy for the war on terror.

While predicting that Chertoff would be confirmed, Democratic congressional staff members said he likely would face tough questions -- similar to those faced by Atty. Gen.-designate Alberto R. Gonzales -- about his commitment to civil liberties.

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As head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, Chertoff helped create and promote Bush administration policies that made it easier for the federal government to detain suspected terrorists and send undercover FBI agents to conduct surveillance inside domestic religious and political groups.

Civil liberties groups raised concerns about the nomination.

“Mr. Chertoff’s record suggests that he sees the Bill of Rights as an obstacle to national security rather than a guidebook on how to do it properly,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington national office.

Nojeim criticized Chertoff’s role in the decision to detain as many as 1,300 Arab and Muslim noncitizens in the United States after Sept. 11 on minor immigration violations.

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None of them was found to be involved in the attacks, Nojeim said.

Nojeim also criticized Chertoff’s role as an author of the Patriot Act, passed six weeks after the terrorist attacks, which made it easier for criminal investigators and intelligence agents in terrorism cases to share information and conduct physical and electronic surveillance.

Over the last year, courts have ruled parts of the act unconstitutional, including a provision that made it easier for the government to obtain Internet and other electronic records from communications companies.

But some Democrats who have worked with Chertoff said they expected him to be a protector of Americans’ rights and freedoms.

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“He’s a thoughtful guy who takes the need to protect both laws and our way of life very seriously and will be sensitive to civil liberties issues,” said Suzanne Spaulding, former Democratic staff director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who is now managing director of Harbor Group, a government relations organization.

The son of a rabbi and a homemaker, Chertoff grew up in Elizabeth, N.J., and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and Harvard Law School.

As an assistant U.S. attorney in New York in the mid-1980s, he was the lead prosecutor in the Mafia “commission” case and secured the convictions of some of the nation’s top organized crime bosses.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush named him U.S. attorney for New Jersey.

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Later, after a brief spell as a corporate defense attorney, he became the Republican counsel to the Senate investigation of President Clinton’s involvement in Whitewater, a failed Arkansas real estate venture.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) twice has voted against Chertoff in confirmation hearings as a protest against his treatment of White House staffers during the investigation, her spokesman Philippe Reines said.

Chertoff’s role investigating the Clintons helped beef up his conservative credentials, preparing him for his appointment to the No. 3 job in the Justice Department.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft was not in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, and Chertoff was the senior Justice Department official immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In the ensuing days, Bush said Tuesday, he helped lead the efforts to trace the attacks to Al Qaeda and hunt suspects.

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“He understood immediately that the strategy on the war on terror is to prevent attacks before they occur,” Bush said.


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