updated 12/14/2006 8:16:57 PM ET 2006-12-15T01:16:57

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff delivered a backhanded slap Thursday at one of his agencies, saying it should not allow red tape to interfere with helping disaster victims.

Chertoff, who listed the Hurricane Katrina response as one of the “transformative experiences” for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said there is “a lot more work to do” even though FEMA has been “retooled.”

The secretary noted there still are “tens of thousands of people who suffer the lingering effects” of last year’s hurricane.

“We have to make sure that FEMA does not become so enmeshed in its own bureaucratic processes sometimes that they lose sight of the need to have simple common sense and humanity in dealing with the public,” he said.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in Washington said the Bush administration’s handling of a post-Katrina housing program was “a legal disaster.” Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled that FEMA mishandled the program and violated the constitutional rights of as many as 5,500 storm victims.

A statement from FEMA following Chertoff’s comments said that in providing housing for Katrina victims, FEMA had done “something it has never done before. ... Our efforts were not perfect. ... We used the authorities, programs and policies that we had to work with and we did the right thing.”

Chertoff, in remarks at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, said he wanted to sum up lessons learned and to look forward to the next two years.

Priorities for future
Chertoff listed his broad goals and priorities for the coming year as protecting the country against threats; making sure critical infrastructure is “sufficiently hardened” to reduce vulnerability; building 21st-century response capabilities; and unifying his department “into a seamless whole.”

Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi has promised that Democrats will take even stronger steps on homeland security.

Pelosi pledged that the Democrats would enact all the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. In addition, she said, “We’ll go them (the commission) one better on port security, where we have even tougher proposals to screen 100 percent of the containers long before they reach U.S. shores.”

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