WASHINGTON — President Bush on Tuesday nominated federal appeals court judge Michael Chertoff, a former assistant attorney general in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, to be secretary of homeland security.
"I'm confident he'll be a strong and effective leader," the president said of Chertoff, whose previous experience makes him very familiar with the levers and pulleys of power and how to move them.
The choice of Chertoff, 51, came as a surprise as his name was not on any lists that have surfaced since Bernard Kerik, the former New York police chief, withdrew his nomination.
Several other people had been interviewed since Kerik withdrew last month, but Chertoff was not reported among them.
Chertoff is currently a judge with the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He was nominated to the seat in March 2003 by the president.
A Harvard law graduate, Chertoff previously headed the Justice Department’s criminal division, where he played a central role in the nation’s legal response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Before that he was in private practice and in 1994-96 served as the Senate Republicans’ chief counsel for the Clinton-era Whitewater investigation.
Chertoff, who still needs to be confirmed by the Senate, was actually the president’s second pick for the job.
Kerik withdrew citing immigration problems with a family housekeeper. After failing to disclose the nanny problem during an initial screening, Kerik acknowledged it during a subsequent vetting phase as he filled out a clearance form.
Bush said that Chertoff has “been confirmed by the Senate three times,” signaling that he should have no problem surmounting the advise-and-consent process.
Chertoff, whose appeals court nomination sailed through Congress, won immediate support on Capitol Hill, where even Democrats applauded the choice.
“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,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Chertoff was one of the administration’s key figures in the war on terror.
He took the lead in 2003 in successfully arguing the government’s case in a potentially precedent-setting appeal involving terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, the lone man charged as a conspirator in the Sept. 11 attacks. He also played a significant role in development of the U.S. Patriot Act to combat terrorist attacks, legislation criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, among others.
As a federal prosecutor in New Jersey from 1990 to 1994, Chertoff oversaw high-profile prosecutions of Jersey City Mayor Gerald McCann, New York chief judge Sol Wachtler and the kidnappers and killers of Exxon executive Sidney Reso.
He entered private practice in 1994 but stayed in the public spotlight.
As chief Republican counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee during the administration of President Bill Clinton, Chertoff played a major role in the investigation of the Clintons’ Arkansas business dealings; the suicide of Vincent Foster, a Clinton aide and former law partner of Hillary Clinton; and other allegations against the Clintons.
In 2000, he worked in Trenton, N.J., as special counsel to the state Senate Judiciary Committee that investigated racial profiling in New Jersey.
The choice of a new homeland security chief completes a substantial makeover of the Bush team as the president awaits his swearing-in Jan. 20 for a new term.
Donald Rumsfeld, John Snow and Norman Mineta have remained as secretaries of defense, treasury and transportation, but Bush has changed most other key agency positions.
He turned to close associates Margaret Spellings and Alberto Gonzales for the positions of secretary of education and attorney general and chose his first-term national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to be secretary of state.
Congress has started the process of confirmation hearings, and Gonzales appeared last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Democrats quizzed him aggressively about his role in the writing of an administrations policy paper interpreting what kinds of interrogations of enemy combatants could be permitted under a 1994 law banning torture.
Rice has her initial confirmation hearing Jan. 18, two days before Bush’s inauguration.
Ridge leaves behind a department that is still in transition. Culled from 22 often-disparate federal agencies, the 180,000-employee organization still faces criticism over aspects of its massive government merger, including matters from the coordination of finances to computer systems.
In October 2001, Ridge became the nation’s first White House homeland security adviser, leading a massive undertaking to rethink all aspects of security within the U.S. borders in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Congress later passed legislation establishing the Homeland Security Department, with Ridge taking over as the first secretary in January 2003.
Pete Williams is NBC's chief justice correspondent. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report. Please watch for full coverage on the Chertoff nomination on NBC's Nightly News.