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On Monday, March 3rd, I was invited to participate in a roundtable of homeland security Bloggers with DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.  As part of the Department’s interest in engaging new media, they invited eight of us to have an on-the-record discussion with the Secretary to talk about anything we wanted to discuss. Lasting nearly an hour, it proved to be a very vibrant exchange.  Each of us had the opportunity to ask a question and a couple of the Bloggers seemed to revel in their ability to ask continual follow-ups. I’ve helped organize and run a number of roundtables with media, as well as corporate executives and business leaders with DHS and other notable public and private principals but this time I had the opportunity to be an actual participant for a change.

Having been around Secretary Chertoff on some of the assignments I had when I was at DHS’ Private Sector Office, I have been fortunate enough to see him interact with a lot of different people and issues in various environments.  One of the things that most impressed me about him when I first met him was his ‘bandwidth.’  To say he’s brilliant and the sharpest guy in the room is an understatement.  His ability to absorb information, cut through the BS and get exactly to the point in a phenomenally short amount of time was astounding.  What might take most people 30 minutes to get their heads and hands around might take him 12 minutes and he is prepared to use the balance of the scheduled time he has to move on to something else entirely.  He has never been one that is interested in the idle, warm-up chit chat that usually begins a meeting or briefing – he wants to get the information he needs, review the facts, make a decision and move on.

That part of Secretary Chertoff has never changed and was evidenced in our session with him in the Conference Room at the Customs & Border Patrol Headquarters at the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington but I had to say that when he walked into the conference room to meet with us, it had to be the most relaxed, energetic and jovial I had ever seen him.  Jovial is not a word that comes to mind when you say Michael Chertoff.  He will never be chronicled in the history of Cabinet Secretaries and Washington leaders as an ‘electrifying’ personality that leaves people swooning (like a certain Illinois US Senator does) but if you have ever watched him work, you get a sense of the tremendous confidence and capability that he has in whatever he does.  Whether that comes from his days as a former prosecutor or federal judge, his presence and the words he utters communicate quite clearly, “I am going to listen to every word you say, take them in and respond accordingly.”  I do not want to even imagine what it must have been like to have been cross-examined by him in a courtroom.  It would have probably been smarter to plead guilty than to find yourself taken apart by his analysis and questioning.

For anyone who has never been in a roundtable session like we were having, it’s important to note that the Secretary opened the session with the Bloggers without a note card in his palm or a pile of papers in his hands to reference in typical Washington principal fashion to remind him of who he was meeting with and why, and what he was supposed to say to them.  He immediately sat down and you could almost hear the starter’s pistol fire, “BANG!” and he was out of his starter’s block rounding the first curve on the track of information he wanted to convey.  It was clear he wanted to get some messages out there and correct the ‘records’ of some issues he feels have been really distorted by the media and in particular those presented by Washington Post Reporter, Spencer Hsu.  And he was not shy about it either.

Unlike other senior principals I’ve been around, supported or observed, he does not duck a tough question.  Rather, he’s almost daring the questioner, “So you think you’re going to get one by me, huh?” and then proceeds to deliver facts, reference points and arguments faster than you can take them all in.   While I can’t quite picture him as Dirty Harry holding a fully loaded .44 Magnum at a criminal dirt bag who desperately needs to meet his Maker and uttering, “Do you feel lucky, punk?  Well do ya?” his mind is fast enough to blow a hole through most questioners and challengers before they realize they’ve been taken out.

On the occasion of our meeting him, the Secretary clearly was at a good point in his week (it was Monday and to my knowledge there was no Congressional hearing that had generated more disparaging headlines or any media story that required immediate correction either) so all was well in the land of DHS.  He was ready to share his thoughts and was prepared for whatever we were going to throw at him question wise.  At the link below, you can access the transcript of what we covered with him.

Transcripts tend to be very static and never give you a feel for the exchanges that go on so let me say this in helping you understand what happened in this roundtable — there should be no doubt about Secretary Chertoff’s confidence in himself; the direction he is taking the Department or where he wants to go before he leaves office next year.  That being said, if you had his job and you knew the finish line was in sight, wouldn’t you be jovial to?

Read a Full Transcript of Bloggers Roundtable

Interest of full disclosure – the question below (on risk) is the one I asked Secretary Chertoff.  His response is offered below and when you find this discussion on the transcript, please know that I am not the questioner immediately afterwards trying to ask him another question.  I had my turn in line and waited for another go around but some folks like to keep jumping ahead in line and my Mom and Dad taught me better than that….

Question: Sir, when you came onboard, you immediately started talking about risk, and how risk analysis and risk management would play a role in how resources were put out, how firms would run, et cetera. And you mentioned the chemical area earlier, as to what was working there. It seems, though, that there aren’t necessarily commonalities to risk on how we’re looking at different infrastructures. And how can we give this President and his successor a really good — I would say, a really good map of where we are with risk in this country, when all the various infrastructure pieces that we’ve got, those puzzle pieces don’t match up by how we’re looking at risk?

Secretary Chertoff: Well, I think for us they do in this sense. We generally look at risk as consequence, vulnerability, and threat — and threat includes intent and capability. And of those things, probably the most significant is consequence, because it’s the least variable. I mean, threat, in terms of intent and capability, can change quite readily. Vulnerability, if we’re doing our job right, gets reduced — so that should be a risk reducer. But consequence, really, generally means the same. And that’s the template we use across everything.

So we use that with — and the other technique we use is, we tend to be performance standard-based as opposed to specification-based. And I will say, to reduce the risk, you’ve got to be able to do the following things, and we talk about outcomes, like: defend against this kind of attack for this period of time; or, in the cases of the railroads, reduce the percentage of stationary dwell time in a population area by, let’s say, 75 percent. And that’s all funneled under this notion if you reduce the vulnerability, that’s reducing the risk because if the consequence stays the same, and the threat stays the same, you’ve at least — you know, they’re all multiplied by each other. So I think that we actually do use that formula.

Now, others, of course — the states and localities — measure things a little differently. When individuals look at risk, or individual communities look at risk, they look at their own risk. They don’t trade off against somebody else’s risk. So sometimes you get — that’s why you get a lot of criticism from local or state officials, because from their perspective, we’re not seeing their risk, and they’re not paying attention to the risk of other communities. So when we get into the big city — you know, the urban grants — everybody always feels they’re getting too little. But we have to look at the whole menu across the board.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More