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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Michael Chertoff
Secretary of Homeland Security

December 18, 2008

Michael Chertoff

It's great to be back hosting another "Ask the White House" session. I want to begin by echoing what President Bush said yesterday at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania: that our country has remained safe since 9/11 not because of luck, but because of his decisive leadership and the steadfast determination of our armed forces, intelligence, and law enforcement partners.

When I look back on my time serving as Homeland Security Secretary, I think three key things truly define the department's early legacy.

The first is that we have turned the tide of illegal immigration by vastly improving our border security and enforcing our nation's immigration laws. The second is that we have successfully retooled the Federal Emergency Management Agency to handle 21st century demands. And the third and perhaps most important accomplishment is that we have kept the American people safe from another terrorist attack.

Our work is certainly not over, but the 218,000 men and women of DHS stand ready to continue to protect our homeland.

So with that, I'm happy to answer your questions.

Becky, from IA writes:
Mr. Secretary, what advice would you give to the person who will hold your position next?

Michael Chertoff
I have known Governor Napolitano for years and have tremendous respect for her. She has demonstrated sound judgment and strong leadership in Arizona and is an excellent choice for secretary. My team and I have already met with her several times to prepare for this transition.

Among other advice that I have relayed, I have urged my successor to continue to help the country focus on the threats we face and what we must do to stay prepared. We must resist complacency.

Additionally, I have suggested that the new administration try to resist the temptation or the pressure to reorganize the department. We have already reorganized much of the department and worked to create a horizontally integrated system that allows for cooperation and information sharing. When you reorganize a structure, you essentially freeze everything.

Karen, from Cleveland writes:
Mr. Secretary, Are the threats against our country primarily targeting larger cities? Thank you for serving.

Michael Chertoff
We take all threats seriously, and understand the ramifications of a terrorist attack to both a large metropolitan area as well as a small or rural area. The department has provided roughly $29 billion in state and local homeland security grants for planning, organization, equipment, training and exercises against the possibility of terrorist attacks since 2003. A large portion of that money has gone to the Urban Area Security Initiative, which provides funds specifically directed to high risk cities and urban areas.

DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has deployed 30 intelligence officers to fusion centers across the country. Fusion centers, many of which exist in large cities, bring together law enforcement and intelligence officers from across the government to share information relating to criminals and terrorists.

The bottom line is that we have to be prepared for threats to cities large and small.

Katie, from WVU writes:
Mr. Chertoff, how can we ensure that America is safe from another 911 occurring? Is there anything that 'normal' Americans can do?

Michael Chertoff
All citizens can take steps to prepare themselves for an emergency, be it a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. You can begin by visiting and learning how to prepare a kit of necessities to sustain you and your family for up to 72 hours after an incident. It’s best to think first about the basics of survival: fresh water, food, clean air and warmth. The Web site also outlines ways to make a plan so that if a disaster strikes, you and your family know how to contact one another, how you will get back together, and what you will do in different situations. It is also important to remember that ordinary citizens can help to prevent terrorist attacks and criminal activity by staying vigilant and reporting any suspicious activity to authorities.

Gil, from Scottsdale AZ writes:
What does the war in Iraq have to do with national or homeland security?

Michael Chertoff
The President’s decision to remove threatening regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and to enable democratic societies to emerge there and throughout the world as alternatives to extremism and terror has furthered our efforts to secure the homeland.

We must fight the war against extremism overseas so that we do not have to fight it right here in our own cities. Left unsecure, Iraq could become a safe haven for attacks on Americans. But the brave men and women of our armed forces and those of our partners in Iraq have turned the tide on extremism. They have crippled al Qaeda in Iraq, particularly in the former stronghold of Anbar Province.

A sad but poignant example of the connection between our efforts in Iraq and homeland security is one of the worst IED attacks that was triggered by an individual named Ra’ed al-Banna. We know he was the perpetrator of this horrible attack because we lifted his fingerprints off the steering wheel of the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device that he detonated, killing more than 130 innocent lives, wounding many more.

He was denied entry into the United States just a few years earlier by an alert Customs and Border Protection agent at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Al-Banna had a legitimate passport in his own name and a valid visa. But he didn't get into the U.S. because data in the DHS computer system flagged him as someone who ought to get a bit more scrutiny than the usual passenger. So he was interviewed, using some of the data in the system. In the end, the officer who did the interview decided that al-Banna's answers weren't consistent. So the officer denied him admission, and sent him back to Jordan.

No one knows why al-Banna wanted to enter the U.S. in 2003 - or what he would have done if he'd gotten in. But, personally, I'm glad we didn't get the chance to find out.

Nick, from Kentucky writes:
What does homeland security involve?

Michael Chertoff
Thanks for your question, Nick. To me, homeland security involves managing the risks our country faces and comprehensively addressing the full spectrum of our mission – which includes prevention, protection, and response to all hazards.

To give you an example of what my Department covers, on an average day we screen more than 2 million air travelers. We inspect more than 300,000 cars crossing our borders. We check 70,000 shipping containers for dangerous materials at our ports. We help secure thousands of pieces of critical infrastructure – from bridges and dams to chemical plants and cyber systems.

We rescue hundreds of people in danger or distress. And we naturalize more than 3,200 new American citizens and conduct 135,000 national security background checks.

We manage these and other risks every day. That’s not to say we can protect every person from every danger at every moment. Nor can we eliminate all risk. What we can do is provide risk-based protection against the most consequential threats, while striving to minimize disruption and inconvenience.

Sally, from Lake Tahoe writes:
Can you tell us what measures have been taken to ensure that our homeland is safe?

Michael Chertoff
Don’t think I have enough time this hour to type all that we have been able to accomplish, so I will highlight only a few examples.

To start, we have completely overhauled our aviation security system. Today, more than 20 layers of security protect air travelers, from hardened cockpit doors and Federal Air Marshals to 100 percent screening of passengers and bags.

At our borders, we’ve built hundreds of miles of fencing, added new technology, and deployed the National Guard. Through the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, we’ve maintained our high professional standards while training thousands of new Border Patrol agents and doubling the size of the force. In the interior, we’ve arrested record numbers of illegal aliens – including more than 11,000 gang members and 34,000 fugitives – and we deported more than 349,000 illegal aliens in the past year.

Prior to 9/11, we hardly scanned any cargo. Today at our seaports, we now scan virtually 100 percent of incoming cargo for radiation to make sure a Weapon of Mass Destruction doesn’t enter the United States through the global supply chain.

We have also vastly improved our coordination and information sharing efforts with partners at every level – from state and local officials and private sector companies, to our international counterparts with whom we have robust law enforcement and passenger screening agreements.

And we have taken action to strengthen the security of identification documents. We require passports or other secure documents to enter the United States from within our own hemisphere. This closes a pre-9/11 loophole that left us vulnerable.

To counter the growing threat to our nation’s cyber systems, we’ve dramatically increased our cybersecurity measures based on the President’s Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative.

And finally, we’ve strengthened FEMA, built new capabilities for tracking commodities, improved emergency communications, and developed much stronger connections with our partners at all levels, including the U.S. Department of Defense and the private sector.

Wesley, from Fort Worth, Texas writes:
Are illegal aliens considered a national security issue?

Michael Chertoff
They can be. Since January 2008, DHS’ U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed or returned more than 323,000 illegal aliens from the United States, roughly a 20 percent increase over the previous year. ICE dramatically increased penalties against employers whose hiring processes violate the law, securing fines and judgments totaling in the millions, as well as jail time for the most egregious offenders.

Under ICE's 287(g) and Criminal Alien Programs, officers identified more than 260,000 criminal aliens last fiscal year in federal, state and local prisons and jails, more than triple the number of incarcerated aliens identified just two years ago.

The bottom line is that many who attempt to enter our country illegally are merely looking for work opportunities. But in our post-9/11 world, we know that criminals and terrorists alike seek to enter the United States to carry out much more dangerous activities than merely looking for employment.

Cliff, from Brimfield, Ohio writes:
Secretary Chertoff: Homeland Security sure comes to the front burnner when you see things like what happened in India. We here in the United States I think have taken the attitude that it may happen here but not likely because we have HOMELAND SECURITY. I believe other countries have a form of Homeland Security and inspite of it. It can and does happen. The world is such a dangerous place in the present time and those who wish to distrupt or destroy it will only increase. The attempts will increase and like an ant. They only need a SMALL opening in our Homeland Security and a 911 event or worse could take place. Are many of the other countries Homeland Security departments working with each other on the issues? We here in the US are not aware of CREDIABLE THREATS Your department has to address on a daily, hourly and by the minute basis. We tuck ourselves into bed each night. And feel safe. We forget to say to You and your staff and departments for allowing us to feel such.THANK YOU.

Michael Chertoff
Thanks for your kind words. In addition to the information that I have previously mentioned this afternoon, this is a good opportunity to discuss real threats that exist today and what the department is doing about them.

About a year and a half ago I talked about the fact that I thought we were entering a period of heightened strategic threat. Unfortunately we have seen a continued illustration of the intent to carry out attacks by ideological extremists in Mumbai, the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, and the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, to name a few. But, due to vigilant efforts and international cooperation, recent plots have been disrupted in Germany, Britain, and in other countries around the world.

Specifically related to the recent Mumbai attacks, we have been working hard for more than a year on measures to reduce the risk that terrorists will be able to use small boats in an attack on this country. In April, 2008, the Department released a Small Vessel Security Strategy which outlines our goals and objectives with respect to reducing the threat of a small vessel-type attack; and especially highlights the role of the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection.

To learn more, I encourage you to check out two recent “Leadership Journals” (that’s my version of a blog on the DHS website) that the Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen and my Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker posted.

Michael, from Powell, TN writes:
I thank President Bush for trying to defend our country from another terrorist attack. What would do hope President-elect Obama will do to continue it? Merry Christmas

Michael Chertoff
Thank you. As a member of President Bush’s cabinet, I have had the opportunity of working closely with him for nearly four years. And based on that relationship and on all that I have observed, not only at Homeland Security but during my time heading the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, I can assure you that the fact that we have remained safe since 9/11 is definitely not accidental.

President Bush has demonstrated extraordinary leadership in directing that every effort be made to facilitate a smooth transition in government for the incoming administration. At DHS, we are actively planning to leave the department strong in January 2009, an effort that has been a priority for my leadership team since early last year. Historically, we know transitions may be periods of increased vulnerability so we are keenly focused on ensuring a smooth hand-off to the new administration and working closely with the incoming transition team.

Last year, we established a succession plan for all component agencies, ensuring that the top leadership in each component includes career executives who will preserve continuity of operations before, during and after the administration transition. We’ve trained and exercised those senior career employees to ensure that each component and office within DHS has capable leadership ready to move up and take the reins during an administration transition, and assist new appointees to be ready on day one. In addition, we are going beyond briefing materials to develop and implement improved processes to equip the new appointees with the tools they need, and the information and relationships required to be effective in their jobs.

We extend our congratulations to the President-elect, and stand ready to work with the Senate and new appointees to quickly confirm the new senior leadership for the Department of Homeland Security.

Michael Chertoff
As I look back on my years in this administration, I consider it an honor to have served a President whom I deeply respect, a man who has not only helped secure our homeland, but has upheld the honor and the dignity of his office in these challenging times.

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