Michael Chertoff, the Jewish judge President Bush nominated this week to head the vast Homeland Security bureaucracy, brings a rabbi’s son’s sensibility to resolving the tensions between protecting Americans and preserving civil liberties. Bush made clear in his announcement Tuesday that he found Chertoff attractive because of his toughness and his sterling reputation.
But Jewish community leaders who know him say the judge would bring much more than that to the position.
“I can’t sing his praises high enough,” said attorney Stephen Flatow, who says Chertoff was instrumental in drafting the USA Patriot Act, which led to the U.S. indictment of a Florida-based alleged leader of Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the 1995 murder of Flatow’s daughter Alisa in a Gaza Strip terrorist attack.
Chertoff, 51, would be Bush’s second Cabinet-level Jewish appointment; Josh Bolten has run the Office of Management and Budget since 2003.
Chertoff was the top criminal justice official at the Justice Department at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The controversial Patriot Act, which removed the wall between how domestic and U.S. foreign intelligence agencies gathered and shared information, accelerated the case against the Islamic Jihad leader, Sami al-Arian, who faces trial in Florida this summer.
As a result of this legislation, “they were able to put together the case very quickly but thoroughly,” said Flatow, who is now chairman of the community relations committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest in New Jersey.
Chertoff since has come to question what many consider some of the extremes of the Patriot Act — but that has also earned him Jewish praise.
“To his credit, Judge Chertoff recognized himself that many of things done immediately after Sept. 11 were not things that should have been done,” said Paul Miller, the president of the American Jewish Congress, who has met frequently with Chertoff.
“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.
“If confirmed, I pledge to devote all my energy to promoting our homeland security, and as important, to preserving our fundamental liberties,” he said.
Chertoff has strong ties to the Jewish community. 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 a co-chairwoman of the regional Anti-Defamation League’s civil rights committee when he was the U.S. attorney in New Jersey in the mid 1990s.
He lives in Bernardsville, N.J.
Beyond his Jewish ties, Chertoff has an impressive resume: Harvard Law School, U.S. Supreme Court law clerk, partner with the law firm of Latham & Watkins, U.S. attorney, assistant U.S. attorney general. He’s now a federal judge on the Philadelphia-based Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
But his biggest asset may 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 rake-thin, bearded and 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 Sept. 11 attacks.
Chertoff has a reputation for toughness, and it is clear that Bush expects him to tame the Homeland Security beast.
“When Mike is confirmed by the Senate, the Department of Homeland Security will be led by a practical organizer, a skilled manager and a brilliant thinker,” he said.
More substantially, Jewish leaders say, Chertoff would bring a rare tendency to reach out to an administration with a reputation for insularity. Many Jewish groups have chafed at what they say is the Bush 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 resume 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. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) 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-Sen. 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, Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-N.Y.) 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 the 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 the 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.”
Stuart Deutsch, the dean of Rutgers Law School, said Chertoff exhibited sensitivity to both sides of the issue when he delivered the school’s 2003 lecture named for Miller, the AJCongress president who is also a Rutgers benefactor.
“The lecture was a historical analysis of how we have swung back and forth between security and civil liberty situations,” Deutsch said. “He clearly felt that it was important to react to Sept. 11, 2001; on the other hand he certainly said we need to be worried about how far we go to the extent that we go too far on the side of security.”
It is also seen as a plus that Chertoff, like Kerik, is from the region most immediately affected by the Sept. 11 attacks, and also the area with the highest Jewish concentration: the Northeast corridor.
Residents of the area say they have been underfunded by the department.
“Someone who comes from New Jersey and from this region might appreciate the issues facing us in terms of the funding formula for Homeland Security dollars,” said Lori Price Abrams, the director of the community relations committee for the MetroWest federation.
“The allocations do under-award us.”
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.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.