Senate confirms new chiefof homeland security

File photo of U.S. Appeals Court Judge Michael Chertoff
Michael Chertoff was head of the criminal division of the Justice Department when FBI agents sent a memo seeking guidance about questioning terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.Larry Downing / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Senate confirmed the nation’s second homeland security secretary Tuesday, placing federal Judge Michael Chertoff, a tough-on-terrorism former prosecutor, in charge of a bureaucracy prone to infighting and turf wars.

Chertoff, 51, has promised to balance protecting the country with preserving civil liberties as head of the sprawling agency that was created as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The 98-0 vote came nearly two weeks after Chertoff faced pointed questioning from Democrats about his role in developing the U.S. investigation immediately after the attacks.

Chertoff headed the Justice Department’s criminal division when hundreds of foreigners were swept up on relatively minor charges and held for an average of 80 days. Some detainees were denied their right to see an attorney or were not told of the charges against them, and others were physically abused.

At a hearing Feb. 2 before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Chertoff defended the investigation strategy but conceded that it “had not always been executed perfectly.”

Memo on interrogations sparks debate
Few expected Chertoff to face widespread opposition in the Senate. But his confirmation was delayed by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., to protest being denied Justice Department information about the treatment of terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Levin unsuccessfully sought an unedited copy of a secret FBI memo sent in May that discussed interrogation techniques to see whether it mentioned or involved Chertoff. The department denied Levin’s request but said the memo did not refer to Chertoff “by name or otherwise.”

Known as a fiery, wiry workhorse, Chertoff had previously been confirmed three times, as a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, as assistant attorney general and as the U.S. attorney in New Jersey.

He takes over the 180,000-employee Homeland Security Department in the wake of new regulations replacing salaries based on workers’ seniority with a merit pay system. The regulations are being challenged in federal court by four labor unions who represent the agency’s employees.

Chertoff replaces Tom Ridge, who stepped down Feb. 1.