Michael Chertoff Discusses Homeland Security Strategies

The former secretary of homeland security speaks during an International Affairs Society event.

Michael Chertoff
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff leads a discussion at the Elliott School.
September 11, 2013

By Julyssa Lopez

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff spoke about how to make strategic homeland security decisions in today’s world in a presentation at the Elliott School of International Affairs on Monday. The event was sponsored by the International Affairs Society (IAS), a student organization dedicated to promoting a better understanding of international affairs.

Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs Michael Brown opened the event by welcoming Secretary Chertoff, who is also chair of the university’s Cybersecurity Initiative, an interdisciplinary effort to provide research-based solutions and host in-depth discussions on cybersecurity challenges.

Although the U.S. has made strides and invested heavily in national security infrastructure since 9/11, Secretary Chertoff said there are still several lessons from the attack that can help deal with international threats and propel U.S. policy forward. It is important, he explained, to look at homeland security in a broad sense and rethink strategies to stay ahead of potential adversaries.

“A strategic sense recognizes that today’s battlefield is very different than it was 25, 50 or 100 years ago. It’s a global battlefield… It involves networks, global travel, global communications and global findings,” Secretary Chertoff said.

When dealing with international decisions, Secretary Chertoff explained it is most important to adapt strategies to specific circumstances. The goal is not to form tactical solutions to get problems out of the way, but to evaluate particular conditions, consequences and requirements in given areas. He outlined examples in Libya, Egypt and Syria.

“We have three different case studies. In each case, the strategy demands something different. In one case, it raises questions about whether we should have intervened, in another case I think it suggests we need to intervene and in the third case, it suggests that the right use of power is soft power rather than hard power,” said Secretary Chertoff.

Regarding Libya, Secretary Chertoff said the U.S. may have “injected more instability and more danger in the region than we removed.” The situation also may have sent mixed messages to leaders deciding whether or not to renounce their nuclear weapons. Although the situation was difficult, it raised questions about whether it was a strategic or tactical win.

In Syria, however, Secretary Chertoff said two perspectives must be considered: The country risks destabilizing consequences if either President Bashar al-Assad or opposing extremists triumph. Therefore, the most strategic outcome is for a sufficiently strong, moderate group of opposition forces to claim control and preserve peace in the area. Additionally, choosing not to intervene may send adversaries a message that there are no consequences if they behave uncooperatively toward the U.S.

The strategic benefit in Egypt is clear and requires the U.S. to employ policies of “soft power”—assisting with guidance, institution building and economic aid. Such strategies may result in Egypt becoming a strong ally, a model for the Middle Eastern region and a symbol of hope for countries in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Domestically, Secretary Chertoff stressed the importance of using intelligence capabilities to identify individual and organized terrorist threats before they happen. He said law enforcement authority and criminal justice systems can effectively deal with terrorism issues. Secretary Chertoff added one must examine the reasons why people become radicalized to keep terrorism from happening.

“You’ll find a much more disordered and a much more challenging world than maybe was the case 30 or 40 years ago—but it’s a world in which understanding, listening and appreciating the value of having a strategy will be the paramount characteristics we need in this nation’s next generation of leaders,” Secretary Chertoff told students.

Professor David Barton moderated a question-and-answer session following Secretary Chertoff’s presentation. Secretary Chertoff answered several questions, including how to address continuing terrorist threats and what role media plays in national security, before concluding the event.

Senior and IAS Chairman Gordon Gebert said Secretary Chertoff’s discussion was especially important, given its timing just before the 12th anniversary of 9/11 and rising controversies in Syria.

Sophomore Manuela Kurkaa, the academic coordinator of IAS who had a pivotal role in organizing the event, added she was fascinated by the presentation and its relevance to issues today.

 “He mentioned how the United States could never be a bystander to world history but rather had to actively participate in it, help shape it and related this to current debates on intervention in Syria and other parts of the Middle East,” she said. “Secretary Chertoff was an incredibly engaging and interesting speaker.”