Support for Embattled Homeland Security Secretary

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Despite criticism over his department's handling of hurricane relief efforts, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is receiving some support from lawmakers and others, for the time being.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Michael Brown, the embattled director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been the target of the most withering criticism about the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. His boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, has also come under fire, but many lawmakers and others seem ready to cut the new secretary some slack, at least for the time being. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

When President Bush nominated Chertoff to head the Homeland Security Department earlier this year, he called the former Justice Department official a skilled manager and brilliant thinker.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: As head of the criminal division and as a US attorney in New Jersey, Mike built an impressive record of cutting through red tape and moving organizations into action.

FESSLER: But over the past two weeks, those skills have been sorely tested. Chertoff's department at first responded slowly to the hurricane disaster, and two days after the storm, he said he was extremely pleased with the federal response. The next day, in an interview with NPR, the secretary admitted not knowing that thousands of victims were stranded at the New Orleans convention center even though there'd been extensive media coverage throughout the day. Chertoff's bureaucratic explanations have also at times seemed far removed from the unfolding human tragedy.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): The traditional model for response and recovery involves having the federal government come in to support the first responders who were the first on the ground. That happens in all kinds of scenarios. It happens in hurricanes as a routine matter.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): If I'd say one thing, it's not his nature but it's probably better if he showed a little more empathy. You know, he's sort of a cut-and-dry guy.

FESSLER: That's Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and a big supporter of Chertoff.

Sen. SCHUMER: But he does have a lot of talent and I wouldn't at this point just write that talent off.

FESSLER: And that largely seems to be the response on Capitol Hill. Despite some midsteps in the hurricane aftermath, Chertoff is widely respected as a smart, focused manager, and he's only been on the job for six months. During that time, he's conducted a massive review of his department and proposed ways to make it more efficient. David Heyman is director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says Chertoff inherited many of the problems exposed during the hurricane relief effort, and the big test is what he does now.

Mr. DAVID HEYMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): His job today, frankly, is to lead, and if we have problems in the response, good leaders come forward and say that `Despite our best efforts and intentions, this is unacceptable,' and I think he needs to do that.

FESSLER: Chertoff's decision on Friday to hand management of the recovery effort over to a top Coast Guard official and to send FEMA Director Brown back to Washington was a start. Heyman says there are a lot of other things Chertoff will have to deal with. The hurricane revealed shortfalls in emergency communications, coordination, evacuation plans, all the things that might be needed if there's a terrorist attack. He will also have to do something to restore public confidence. Heyman notes that Chertoff said the government wasn't prepared this time because the hurricane's impact was much greater than anything seen before.

Mr. HEYMAN: I think that's probably not very reassuring to the public. In fact, it probably doesn't give them great confidence given that we haven't seen chemical, biological or nuclear attacks, and yet that's exactly what we want that department to be able to protect us against.

FESSLER: There should be plenty of time for Chertoff to prove himself. Recovery and relief efforts are expected to take months, if not years. Lawmakers also plan extensive inquiries into the events surrounding the hurricane to find out what went wrong. Joseph Lieberman is ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which will hold a hearing on the hurricane response this week.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): I mean, obviously, the secretary of Homeland Security, the head of FEMA--on a federal level, these are the two most significant officials involved and we'll be considering their conduct and response to and before Katrina very closely.

FESSLER: But he says it's too soon to assign blame and that lawmakers will be looking at what was done on the state and local level as well. And there are bound to be other challenges for Chertoff. It was only a couple of months ago that people were demanding that more be done to protect the nation's mass transit systems. The department's focus continues to be on terrorism despite the current natural disaster.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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