Michael Chertoff: National security challenges to watch

In the years he was in government, Michael Chertoff dealt with “every kind of crisis and emergency known to man“ “” his words. That's no exaggeration. First came Sept. 11, then Enron, then Katrina. Those experiences left Chertoff with two key lessons about national security “” and the former Secretary of Homeland Security shared them the other day in an exclusive talk before Potomac Officers Club. (The event was sponsored by Northrop Grumman; Andy Maner, CEO of National Interest Security Company, also helped organize it.)

“People always underestimate the dimensions of a crisis, whether because they have disbelief or they're afraid of looking hysterical,“ said Chertoff. “Second, there's no precision to what you're doing in an emergency “¦ if you're given a choice to do too much or too little, do too much,“ he added.

Former Secretary of DHS Michael Chertoff with Andy Maner (left) and Greg Baroni (right)
Former Secretary of DHS Michael Chertoff with Andy Maner (left) and Greg Baroni (right)

What's coming next

Speaking before an audience of government contractors, Chertoff, who now heads the consulting firm The Chertoff Group, offered his take of possible threats to remain vigilant against.

“Here's what I would watch,“ said Chertoff. “With every iteration, when we frustrate them [terrorists] they learn and get smarter “¦ I would watch the high level transit attack.“ Another area to watch, said Chertoff, are biological and chemical attacks “” Chertoff called them a “serious to moderate near-term threat.“ Sustained investment by the federal government is essential to address the issue. The same holds true on the cybersecurity front, added Chertoff. The future of cybersecurity depends on a larger strategic investment, and the success of that strategy will inevitably involve outsourcing, he added.

Other takeaways

In his POC talk, Chertoff offered an overview of other areas of concern to national security:

DHS funding. Chertoff called for increased funding for DHS. “You've got to get DHS the funding [for program managers and acquisition specialists] so they can do their piece, which will make it easier for you to do your piece “¦ it's like the old commercial: “˜If you don't look good, we don't look good.' Well, that's true in contracting “¦ both sides have to be able to play.“

Violence in Mexico. “The violence in Mexico is, to my mind, a serious national security threat. The President of Mexico is doing a terrific job but he is literally finding himself at war with these drug gangs. Make no mistake: This is about a struggle for the governments of certain parts of Mexico. If President Calderon is not able to be successful, that is going to make our southern border look much, much worse than it ever has in our lifetime.“

DHS must go beyond traditional defense.
“Homeland security operates in a domain where most of the assets and the employees are in the private sector. And, therefore, you have to engage the private sector and bring the private sector into the process of dealing with homeland security in a way that doesn’t work in law enforcement or defense.” At the same time, homeland security is a “more vibrant” market than defense.

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