This past Tuesday, I was fortunate to be a part of DHS Sec. Chertoff’s last roundtable with an assembly of Bloggers.  Held at the ever glamorous DHS Headquarters (‘the NAC’ – Nebraska Avenue Complex) – a facility whose decor and ambience would make any North Korean prison camp interior decorator beam with pride, the Secretary came into the meeting with a lot of positive feel about what was underway at DHS and his tenure as its leader.

While still fighting off a cold, he dove right into several quick points about what was happening with Transition; his discussions with his nominated successor, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano; probable reasons why there has been no successful terror attack in the US since 9/11; and how, much to his surprise, he enjoyed doing the various Blogger roundtables.

He was quick to point out in making his positive comments about the Blogger get-togethers that he was not trying to curry favor with those of us assembled around the table.  Rather he felt the questions and points that many of the Bloggers in homeland security and elsewhere were making were relatively informed and insightful, unlike some of the conventional media reporting he had seen during his tenure.

He shared that in the beginning when DHS Public Affairs had brought the idea to him that he was skeptical of what it would be like to have a dialogue with this ‘community.’  I have to say, he wasn’t alone.  Having just started this Blogging thing myself just over a year ago at the urging of a couple of friends, I was too.  As the Secretary was making his remarks, I couldn’t help but think of the first of these Chertoff-Blogger sessions that I also attended.

On that occasion, the Secretary entered the room with his traditional quick walking stride and set eyes communicating, “Okay. Let’s get down to business.” He put himself in the center chair to survey who was around the table, not knowing what to expect.

He opened that session with a set of talking points and then opened it for Q&A.  Because it was the first one of these with Bloggers that he had done (and for many of us in that room the first time opportunity to question and “publicly report” what a Cabinet Member said in response), the room had a degree of mild tension.  For me, I couldn’t help but think the entire set-up had the feel of a Middle School dance where the boys are all on one side and the girls were on the other.  Both sides sort of staring at the other as if saying, “Okay. What do we do now?”

I don’t think any one really knew what to expect until the first question was asked.  From that point on, the give and take between both sides just took off.  Questions that some people might see as being in the weeds or way too nuanced for the conventional newspaper audience were posed, and in response Chertoff offered details and deep levels of perspectives that most reporters would ignore or gloss over but were of definite interest to the bloggers attending, many of whom were homeland security professionals themselves who blogged as a side passion.  By the end of that session, everyone left that room thinking: Hey that was pretty cool.

With each one of these Blogger sessions, the feel of the Middle School dance evaporated to provide some great exchanges with the Secretary and many of the senior DHS leaders who joined him on occasion (FEMA Administrator Paulison; TSA Administrator Hawley, etc.).

On this final occasion, it was obvious the Secretary was feeling good about the work that has been done under his watch.

He highlighted some of his proudest accomplishments – the fact that there had been no successful terror attack on US soil since 9/11; the work that he had been part in shaping the ill-fated Comprehensive Immigration Bill; improved integration of DHS’ components; the enhanced planning efforts that had occurred between the federal departments and DHS, as well as the planning efforts that had taken root in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast and the performance turnaround at FEMA and other portions of the Department.

As to the frustrations and disappointments he had encountered, the word “Katrina” evokes an experience that will never really dissipate for him, FEMA or DHS.  While lessons may have been learned and tremendous improvements shown since the 2005 disaster, he felt that there was an almost automatic behavior by the media as well as other critics of DHS to insert the word “dysfunctional” into any sentence or paragraph describing the Department.

He also described the Washington penchant for wanting to always reorganize something.  What I found particularly amusing about his comments here was the fact he described most reorganizing efforts as a “jobs creation exercises” that produced lots of new boxes and titles but avoided addressing real issues.  [In trying to contain my laughter at his answer, I almost wanted to shout, “AMEN!” but it really wasn’t the time and place to do that.]

When it comes to the future of FEMA and its future inside DHS or outside of it, he reiterated many of the points he has offered in other forums about the need to integrate functions into homeland security, rather than re-establish independent interests.

Interestingly he pointed to the terror attacks that recently occurred in Mumbai as an example where the lack of planning and integration of various local and national governmental agencies in India sowed confusion and problems between emergency response and public safety/security efforts.  While he never said that if FEMA was taken out of DHS, a Mumbai-type response would occur, he did share that it would put the country back into a pre-9/11 posture and that was something no one wanted to have happen.  [I wanted to shout “AMEN!” here as well but again refrained from doing it.]

In terms of his identified successor, Gov. Napolitano, you could see, hear and feel the genuineness of his confidence and complete comfort in her taking the reigns of the Department.  There was none of the obligatory canned Washington response that happens when the outgoing executive is asked about the incoming replacement that They’ll a do good job. He offered that he had already spoken to her (and privately met with her as well) but he would not share the contents of his conversation or Transition memo, as those were thoughts and recommendations that he felt and deserved privacy.

When he talked about the hand-off of his job, though, I thought that of any of the executive hand-offs (in government service or the private sector) that I’ve either witnessed up close and personal or from afar through news accounts and other sources, this was a hand-off between two people who not only knew the other, but had a deep profound respect for the other.  That is a rarity, especially in Washington.  Transitions are always awkward moments for everyone involved but this one won’t be.  That is in large part credit to the leadership and character of the people involved — Sec. Chertoff and Gov. Napolitano.

There were a number of other interesting points that the hour-long conversation revealed, and I encourage you to take a look at the Transcript and give it read for yourself.

In closing his session with us, I couldn’t help but observe how utterly comfortable and confident he felt in what he had done in his almost four years as Secretary but that he wasn’t quite done yet.  Never once did you get the sense that he had already checked out, as often happens when someone is about to leave a job or move on to something else.  His eyes were still wide open, his hands firmly on the wheel and he was going to go full tilt until the afternoon of January 20th when someone finally taps him on the shoulder and says, “Thank you for your service sir.  Your ID badge please. The front gate is this way.”

In sharing his experiences as Secretary and in looking back at his tenure, there is no doubt that he had experienced and learned an awful lot along the way.  I’m sure there were days and hours that he thought, Why in the hell did I agree to take this job? Despite those moments, his candor revealed that he had enjoyed his tenure as DHS Secretary and that he was more than confident in the job he had done.  Most of all, you could tell he was proud.  He has every right to be.

Rich Cooper blogs 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