Chertoff has a reputation for being one of the brainiest people in government — a reputation an encounter with him does nothing to belie. A lawyer, he clerked for Justice Brennan. Later, he was a U.S. attorney, then special counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee.
Why hasn't the U.S. been hit in over four years? Why hasn't there been another 9/11?
Chertoff says that government measures have to be credited — both those undertaken abroad and those undertaken at home. In the first category: killing members of al Qaeda; capturing others; interrogating them. In the second category: better screening at the border and on airplanes. A variety of measures have made our country safer — you can't pick out a single one and say, "That's it."
What about the NSA surveillance program?
Chertoff says that this is the kind of tool that "could well have made a difference," if it had been available before 9/11. In general, "the most significant tactic in the war against terrorism is intelligence gathering." And "a significant part of that" concerns communications intelligence.
And is it legal, this program?
Chertoff speaks about a "very strong basis in the law for what the president has done," although, of course, "people can debate anything." Chertoff cites the authority of the FISA court of review. He further notes that, traditionally, when a person or an object — or a phone call — crosses a border, the government is given extraordinary power.
What's more, the Fourth Amendment is not a "real problem," for the NSA program. This is an amendment that's "couched in pragmatic terms." It speaks of "unreasonable searches and seizures," etc. And let us be reasonable: OSHA can come into your business and search without a warrant. And if the government can search for labor-law violations without a warrant — what about searching for terrorists coming in from overseas?
The Patriot Act?
Chertoff virtually wrote it, while at the Justice Department. When I suggest this, Chertoff demurs — but quickly says, "It's fair to say I was one of the authors. I'm not running away from it. I think it was a great act — but I want to share credit."
Look, he says: Lots of things that come up in the War on Terror "engender debate" — but "the Patriot Act is not a hard question. It's a no-brainer." There is nothing in the act, continues Chertoff, that would establish a procedure or tactic that is not well precedented, often used in other contexts. Take the information sharing: Nobody could have a "serious quarrel" with that. Before the Patriot Act, the government was fighting "with one hand tied behind its back."
How do you go about disrupting attacks?
You can't afford to wait until you get a big, big case — the one where you can say, "Ha! We stopped that one, in the nick of time!" If you wait until terrorists' plans are almost operational, "you are playing with fire."
DHS's job is to intervene in order to avert dangers, at the earliest stages possible, with the legal tools that are available. Before a fellow is able to make a bomb, get him on forged identification. Deport him for violating immigration laws — whatever. This is the old spitting-on-the-sidewalk wisdom.
Americans — some of them — are uncomfortable saying, "These are the things we value, these are the things that are important to us." We want to be extremely tolerant of all points of view. But we should not renounce our ability to say, "This is right, this is wrong."
That's one thing about the president: "He's perfectly willing to say, 'This is right, this is wrong,'" and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But, says Chertoff, "I disagree: At the end of the day, if we're not prepared to identify right and wrong, and defend our values and our lives, in a clear-eyed way, then I think we're putting our society at risk."
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
This is from last week [I'm still catching up] but well worthwhile. From NRO's Jay Nordlinger on his interview with Michael Chertoff at Davos: