Michael Chertoff, the judge that President Bush nominated this week to head the vast Homeland Security bureaucracy, is drawing praise from Jewish communal leaders who say he will work hard to balance the need to protect Americans and to preserve civil liberties.
Chertoff, 51, who would be Bush’s second Cabinet-level Jewish appointment, was the top criminal justice official for Attornery General John Ashcroft at the Justice Department at the time of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He was instrumental in drafting the USA Patriot Act, which, among other things, removed the wall between how domestic and American foreign intelligence agencies gathered and shared information.
The law has been widely criticized by liberal organizations and some conservative groups that claim it infringes on civil liberties, and this has factored into the reaction to Chertoff’s nomination.
Jewish communal officials, however, have come to Chertoff’s defense, noting that he has come to question some elements of the law.
“To his credit, Judge Chertoff recognized himself that many of the things done immediately after September 11 were not things that should have been done,” said Paul Miller, the president of the American Jewish Congress, who has met with Chertoff frequently.
“He’s someone who understands the balance we need between protecting people on the one hand, and tools to protect our safety — and also not to destroy our American values.”
Chertoff himself emphasized the need for balance in his short speech accepting the nomination. “I pledge to devote all my energy to promoting our homeland security, and as important, to preserving our fundamental liberties,” he said.
Born and raised in Elizabeth, N.J., Chertoff is the son of a rabbi, his two children have attended Jewish day schools and his wife, Meryl, was co-chairwoman of the regional Anti-Defamation League’s Civil Rights Committee when Chertoff was the U.S. attorney in New Jersey in the mid-1990s. He lives in Bernardsville, N.J. and is now a federal judge on the Philadelphia-based Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
But his biggest asset might be that he is not Bernard Kerik, the former top New York City cop who withdrew his own nomination for the job following sordid stories about favors he accepted and women he pursued — all of which had prompted criticism that the Bush White House did not do enough to vet nominees.
“He’s been confirmed by the Senate three times!” Bush exclaimed with a smile at the outset of his introduction of Chertoff, a media-shy man who hesitantly approached the microphones to accept the nomination Tuesday.
Chertoff also represents a change of pace from Tom Ridge, the outgoing secretary who is considered by many as a little too attached to symbolism and the media spotlight and not concerned enough with running the unwieldy bureaucracy created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Chertoff has a reputation for toughness, and it is clear that Bush expects him to tame the Homeland Security beast. More substantially, Jewish communal leaders say, Chertoff would bring a much-needed willingness to reach out to others. Many Jewish groups have chafed at what they say is the administration’s “with us or against us” ethos.
Chertoff, a moderate Republican, is well liked on both sides of the aisle. “Judge Mike Chertoff has the résumé to be an excellent Homeland Security Secretary, given his law enforcement background and understanding of New York’s and America’s neglected homeland security needs,” U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a statement.
Chertoff was the sole Republican U.S. Attorney who Bill Clinton kept in place after assuming the presidency in 1993, on the recommendation of then-Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, himself a liberal Democrat, and largely on the basis of his success in pursuing mob figures.
Chertoff also was the lead figure in persuading Israel to send back to the United States “Crazy” Eddie Antar, the discount electronics mogul who had sought refuge in the Jewish state and was convicted of stock fraud.
He went on to become a special counselor for the Whitewater Committee from 1994 to 1996, and had a reputation for toughness, although he quit just before that investigation of the Clintons turned rancorous.
Still, Senator Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat, was the sole dissenter in his most recent confirmation, for appeals court judge.
But Chertoff is not partisan in his toughness: His 2001 investigation into charges that New Jersey State Supreme Court Judge Peter Verniero had, as attorney general, suppressed evidence of racial profiling led Verniero to resign. Verniero had been a prince in the New Jersey Republican establishment.
Chertoff is a classic Rockefeller Republican, a moderate who knows how to talk to all sides, said David Twersky, who was an editor of New Jersey Jewish News in the 1990s when Chertoff was U.S. Attorney in the state. That political positioning makes Chertoff the right choice for running Homeland Security, as the department has come under increasing criticism for heavy-handedness, said Twersky, now international affairs director for the American Jewish Congress.
“On the one hand, we have people who say, ‘Arrest everybody and throw away the key,’ on the other, you have those who say, ‘Don’t you ever profile Arabs,’ “ Twersky said. “The point is to find someone who reconciles these different imperatives. Chertoff is precisely the guy to pull this off.”
It is also seen as a plus that Chertoff, like Kerik, is from the area most immediately affected by the September 11 attacks, and the area with the highest Jewish concentration: the Northeast corridor.
Residents of the area say that the department has underfunded them.
Jewish institutions must now compete for Homeland Security funds funneled through the states. At the same time, Congress has appropriated but not yet authorized a $25 million fund for security for nonprofit institutions. That federal money would be more immediately available to Jewish groups than the state funds have been.