Michael Chertoff's record at the Justice Dept. has followed the same downward arc as a belly-flop. He's managed to botch every major case he's handled and elicit the well-deserved scorn of civil liberties groups. Only in the gravity-defying world of G.W. Bush, where reality is routinely run through a public relations shredder, would a bungler like Chertoff reach the top-spot at Homeland Security. Even so, his appointment should come as no surprise to the wary American public. It's just one more horse-nugget added to an already ample mound of political manure.
Chertoff is credited with authoring the Patriot Act, the 300-plus page blueprint for the modern National Security State; patterned to great extent on the successes of the KGB in the Soviet system. He's admired among his Bush cadres for making sure that government surveillance operates at maximum efficiency. Under his stewardship at the Dept of Justice, the 4th amendment has withered like summer grass. The long-held belief that citizens, have a right to a "reasonable expectation of privacy" has buckled under the demands of "Big Brother" and the new "intrusive" security paradigm.
Chertoff is a member in good standing in the Federalist Society; a cabal of radical lawyers devoted to the systematic dismantling of the Bill of Rights. Already, they've provided much of the legal rationale for the unlawful detention of aliens, the enhanced powers of the Executive, the indefinite incarceration of POW's and the cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners. They've also made strides in crushing what few regulations still exist to protect both consumers and environment.
Chertoff has been an effective conduit for the Federalist ideology. Following 9-11, he masterminded the round-up of 1100 Muslim suspects; dumping them in prison without bothering to file charges. None of the suspects were provided with attorneys or allowed to challenge the terms of their detention. Instead they were held in solitary confinement, abused, and either deported or released after secret tribunals. Chertoff effectively rescinded the Bill of Rights to pursue his blinkered witch-hunt. His actions made no one any safer, nor were they intended to. They were designed to show how easily legal protections are eviscerated during a national emergency. Don't think Chertoff and co. haven't monitored the affects of hysteria on public sensibilities. For the Bush team, demagoguery is the primary tenet of good governance.
Months after the illegal detentions, the Justice's Dept's Inspector General harshly criticized the draconian and unproductive steps that Chertoff authorized. The General dismissed the arrests as "indiscriminate and haphazard"; a clear violation of basic human rights and civil liberties. His reprimand was shrugged off by the impervious Chertoff, who later admitted to Congress that he would have done the same thing all over again.
In Chertoff's world, due process takes a backseat to the arbitrary assertion of state power. Even the hint of terrorism and the rule of law is breezily tossed overboard.
Did we mention that not one terror suspect was ever charged or convicted in this blundering, ham-fisted dragnet? Instead, Chertoff's recklessness galvanized the Muslim community against us and reinforced feelings that the war on terror is underscored by racist and sectarian hatred.
So far, both the media and Senate Democrats are enthralled with Bush's latest selection. A simple Google search rings-up about 200 stories with the same by-line: "Bush Picks Federal Judge for Homeland Security" or "Bush makes Safe Pick"; all of them equally flattering except for a few Muslim or civil liberties sites.
President Bush has also expressed his enthusiasm for his newly-minted Homeland Chief:
"Mike has shown a deep commitment to the cause of justice and an unwavering determination to protect the American people," Bush beamed. "He's also been a key leader in the war on terror."
Indeed, he has. Chertoff led the charge on a number of high-profile cases.
In the widely publicized Detroit "Terror-Cell" case Chertoff's team botched the case through "prosecutorial misconduct"; the INTENTIONAL WITHHOLDING OF INFORMATION THAT WOULD HAVE ACQUITTED THE ACCUSED.
Chertoff was attempting to put an innocent man behind bars just to chalk-up a victory in the war on terror. Fortunately, a DOJ insider blew the whistle and the case was dismissed, but not before it was plain that Chertoff was willing to break the rules to achieve his ends.
Does this sound like someone you,d want to put in charge of the nation's largest public welfare institution?
Another case fumbled by Chertoff was that of a Muslim college student in Idaho who was charged with running an "internet network that fostered Islamic extremists and helped recruit potential terrorists".
Whoa! Sounds like serious stuff?
As it turns out, the charges were entirely bogus and the student was AQUITTED BY THE UNANIMOUS DECISION OF A JURY after an exhaustive review of the evidence. Like all of the DOJ's cases, the story was catapulted to the front page when it broke, (irreparably scarring the student's reputation) and hastily banished to the back pages when the case fizzled. The media operates by the same standard as Chertoff; the "presumption of innocence" is never a serious concern.
There was an intriguing twist to this story, too. Three months after the student was acquitted, the DOJ put Immigration on the case and shipped the young man out of the country. In other words, the DOJ's targets are never safe even if they've been vindicated by a jury. It's a sobering lesson in the flagrant abuse of power.
Chertoff also mishandled the Zacarias Moussaoui case. Moussaoui was allegedly the "20th hijacker" whose case was considered by many to be a "slam dunk". This explains why Chertoff decided to allow it to go through the criminal justice system, to demonstrate the evenhandedness of the American judicial system. Unfortunately, the state made a hash of the proceedings and has been unable to convict a man who, (by his own admission) belonged to terror organizations in France, and who was clearly in the country to mount an attack against the US. Instead of compiling the evidence he needed for a conviction, Chertoff used the case to batter the 6th amendment. (The government refuses to allow captured Al Qaida members to testify in Moussaoui's defense, even though they can provide evidence that will clear him of all charges) The case has deteriorated into a 3 year long travesty; pitting a self-proclaimed terrorist against the ineffectual prosecution of the Justice Dept.
Chertoff's record of failure at Justice is second only to that of Ashcroft. His 4 year tenure hasn't produced even one identifiable success. (Check out his "obstruction of justice" in the John Walker Lindh case on Democracy Now) Instead, his personal ineptitude and his palpable contempt for the law have only showered more disgrace on the institution of American justice. That probably explains why he's being moved up the bureaucratic dog-pile to the top rung of Homeland Security. In Bush-world "failing upwards" is more commonplace than cowboy boots at a Crawford tent-show.
Chertoff's appointment puts the finishing touches on the 2005 Bush Politburo. He'll take his place among the demagogues, torturers and death-squad aficionados that fill out the ranks of the current administration. His slavish devotion to duty will guarantee his tenure at the right hand of the throne; nuzzled up to the ear of the beloved commander-in-chief. After all, Chertoff served his time in the trenches; leading the Republican Congress in their legal jihad against Bill Clinton. ( note: The Whitewater investigation that consumed $40 million of taxpayers money and miles of column space in the "free press" to prove absolutely nothing) And, he's made impressive contributions to the increasing volumes of repressive legislation emerging almost weekly from the Congress. In other words, he's earned his stripes and established himself as a valuable cog in the mighty wheel of state.
We can expect that Chertoff's assault on the Bill of Rights will only intensify in his new role at Homeland Security. Aside from trying to stomp out union activity, and privatize whatever parts of the agency can be farmed out to Bush's corporate buddies, Chertoff will be in charge of the "color-coded" terror-alert system; a program that is skillfully manipulated for purely political purposes. If the administration's charade starts to unravel, Bush will need a good man like Chertoff in place to go "Code Red" and announce the transition to martial law.
Until then, Chertoff will have to satisfy himself with the task of savaging the institutions that make democracy possible. He's already established his bone fides as an enemy of personal freedom and an opponent of an independent judiciary. He'll probably try to expand on those themes; winning greater applause from the feckless Congress.
The ACLU summarized Chertoff's checkered commitment to the rule of law when they issued a statement last week saying, "We are troubled that his public record suggests he sees the Bill of Rights as an obstacle to national security, rather than a guidebook for how to do security properly."
Regrettably, the ACLU is wrong in their assumption that Chertoff sees the Bill of Rights as an obstacle. Rather, he sees it as a minor inconvenience; like a wall that needs to be removed block by block.
Mike Whitney lives in Washington state.