Commentary: Is Chertoff ever going to take some responsibility?

SAN DIEGO -- A few weeks ago, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff stopped by the editorial department of The San Diego Union-Tribune to provide an update on what his department is doing to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

SAN DIEGO -- A few weeks ago, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff stopped by the editorial department of The San Diego Union-Tribune to provide an update on what his department is doing to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

No surprises there. Politicians and public officials always run to the border for chest-thumping and photo-ops. Yet the story line down there never changes. Immigrants stream across because -- as President Bush said in his State of the Union address -- "this economy could not function without them."

What is surprising is how the homeland security chief has somehow managed to cruise through the political fallout of Hurricane Katrina without a scratch. While the media focused on the glaringly incompetent Michael Brown, now the former head of FEMA, Chertoff stayed safely under the radar.

I never understood that. Chertoff was Brown's boss, and the responsibility of responding to major natural disasters was supposed to fall under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security.

But did Chertoff know that? According to an article published by the Knight Ridder newspapers last fall and which drew on obtained federal documents, Chertoff "may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department." He sent out a memo to other Cabinet secretaries saying that the White House was going to have a multi-department task force to respond to Katrina when, all along, he was supposed to be spearheading the response.


According to the article, Chertoff had been given the authority to set in motion a large-scale federal reaction under the National Response Plan, the government's battle blueprint for handling major natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Under the NRP, Chertoff could have mobilized federal agencies into action without having to wait around until state or local officials yelled for help. Brown didn't find himself with that level of power until about a day and a half after the storm hit, when Chertoff passed the hot potato by designating him the "principal federal official" in charge of responding to Katrina.

I wanted to ask Chertoff about that, and more. But the first thing you learn when you sit down with him is that the former federal prosecutor and federal judge is as slippery as they come.

When questions about Katrina came up, he initially argued that the storm was of such magnitude that no one could have prepared for it. Then, a few minutes later, he criticized local officials for not having a preparedness plan to deal with such a catastrophe.

When I asked him if he regretted not invoking the power given him by the NRP, Chertoff insisted that the plan does not create any "command and control authority" and that it certainly doesn't supersede the authority of the states.

But if that's the case, then why have a National Response Plan? Why not just have 50 individual plans, one for each state?

He also said that, in the end, the problem "wasn't a lack of power to direct resources (but) the lack of a plan" to deal with something else that was unforeseen: the large number of people who stayed behind in the Louisiana Superdome. That was just another way of blaming local officials for not evacuating everyone in the city.

Yet investigators with the Government Accountability Office have recently issued a blistering report blaming Chertoff and his boss, President Bush, for not providing "clear leadership responsibility and accountability" after Katrina and not establishing a clear chain of command. The report also blasted Chertoff for not providing more advance training and not doing a better job of preparing for such a disaster. And, the report said, while Chertoff did authorize federal assistance to states and localities, he also failed, until 36 hours later, to classify the storm as "an incident of national significance" -- something that might have speeded up the federal response.

A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department returned fire, saying the report "displays a significant misunderstanding of core aspects of the Katrina response."


In our interview, Chertoff acknowledged that Katrina had "exposed some shortcomings in our processes and our capabilities." Now, he said, the idea was to "build those capabilities that didn't exist and change those processes."

What I was hoping to hear from the secretary -- but didn't -- was an admission that he and his department messed up, that mistakes were made and that he'd make sure that these mistakes aren't repeated in the future.

Either Chertoff understands that or he doesn't. And if he doesn't, we need a new secretary of homeland security.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is .

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