WASHINGTON—In a surprise move, President Bush on Tuesday nominated Michael Chertoff, a federal appeals court judge and former high-ranking Justice Department official, to be homeland security secretary.
Chertoff has a reputation as an aggressive federal prosecutor, who went after mobsters, a president and terrorists.
In tapping Chertoff, Bush selected a highly respected legal mind who has little experience in managing something as large and unwieldy as the Department of Homeland Security. The two-year-old department with 22 agencies and 180,000 employees has been described as a dysfunctional bureaucracy.
However, he brings legal expertise in dealing with terrorism. Chertoff ran the Justice Department's criminal division from 2001 to 2003 and helped craft the administration's legal strategy following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"On Sept. 11, 2001, I joined members of dozens of federal agencies in responding to the deadliest single attack on American civilians ever," Chertoff said Tuesday. "If confirmed as secretary, I'll be proud to stand again with the men and women who form our front line against terror."
Chertoff, 51, is Bush's second pick to replace outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. His first choice, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, withdrew from consideration after embarrassing the White House with an admission that he had not paid taxes for a nanny who may have been an illegal immigrant.
The Kerik episode prompted questions about how thorough the administration was vetting its nominees. On Tuesday, Bush stressed that there should no problems or surprises with Chertoff's confirmation.
"He's been confirmed by the Senate three times," Bush said. The president praised Chertoff's qualifications.
"He's faced countless challenging decisions and has helped to protect his fellow Americans while protecting their civil liberties," Bush said as announced Chertoff's selection to reporters in the White House's Roosevelt Room.
Chertoff's selection caught several lawmakers and homeland security experts off guard. Among those previously mentioned as likely candidates were Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, and Fran Townsend, the White House's homeland security adviser.
"I hadn't heard his (Chertoff's) name mentioned," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., a former Kerik backer. "But it's one of those deals that after the fact, it makes sense. He has experience dealing with Congress, he's got law enforcement experience and he has experience putting bad guys in jail."
Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., called Chertoff "one of the most able people and public servants I have ever known."
If confirmed, Chertoff will face a daunting task at the Department of Homeland Security. The department's former inspector general, Clark Kent Ervin, said in published reports that, despite spending millions of dollars, the nation's ports and airports remain vulnerable to terrorists.
Chertoff "has strong bipartisan support, great intelligence, integrity and energy—and that will help make up for shortcomings in expertise," said Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security. "He's a person who should be able to attract high-caliber people to a department that has an alarming number of high-level vacancies."
Chertoff, a New Jersey native who earned his bachelor's and law degrees from Harvard University, was appointed by Bush in 2003 to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals—which serves Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
His reputation as an aggressive prosecutor was earned on several fronts. He pursued mob bosses in New York and New Jersey in the 1980s. Later he was Republican counsel during the Senate Whitewater investigation of former President Bill Clinton. And after the Sept. 11 attacks, he helped devise legal strategies used by the Justice Department.
When Bush nominated him for the appeals court, the sole Senate vote against his judicial nomination was cast by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.
Chertoff's hand in many of the Bush administration's most aggressive anti-terrorism efforts—including some that have drawn the ire of federal courts—makes some defense attorneys wary of him leading homeland security.
A June 2003 report by the Justice Department's Inspector General's office concluded, among other things, that the FBI failed to distinguish aliens with terrorist links from those who may have been in the country illegally but had no terrorist connections. The report also said the Immigration and Naturalization Service consistently failed notify Sept. 11 detainees the charges they were being held on against them within an INS-stated goal of 72 hours.
But Chertoff did not agree with all of the administration's post-Sept. 11 policies. He opposed a November 2001 plan to try terrorist suspects before military tribunals instead of civilian courts. After he left Justice, he said publicly that the government had to rethink the system of indefinitely detaining enemy combatants without any charges.
"... In my opinion, he's very sensitive to our enshrined rights," said Albert Krieger, a past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "We might disagree as to how far individual rights go in these difficult times, but he would not be pursuing his result without rationality. He plays by the rules."
(Staff writer Stephen Henderson contributed to this report.)