Michael Chertoff ’78: ‘What are we going to do to make sure it doesn’t arise again?’

Former head of Homeland Security and co-author of the USA Patriot Act says U.S. needs a strategy for dislodging terrorist groups

Michael Chertoff ’78 has held a number of high-level federal positions including as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, but he is best known for serving as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009. Co-author of the USA Patriot Act, Chertoff is co-founder and executive chairman of the Chertoff Group, a risk-management and security consulting company.


Harvard Law Today: On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, what impressions come up for you?

Michael Chertoff ’78: On September 11, 2001, I was the relatively new head of the Criminal Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. There was no Homeland Security at the time, so if there was any terrorist attack it was something which was run by Department of Justice. I was on my way to work, I was on the car phone talking to my deputy and he said a plane just hit the World Trade Center. I, like a lot of people, thought it was some small plane, some pilot got confused. As we continued to talk, he said the second plane hit, and I said, ‘This is not an accident.’ A few minutes later, I got in and we walked across to the FBI building where the headquarters of the Strategic Information and Operation Center was, and [FBI Director Robert] Mueller was there. I’ve known Bob for a long time and we immediately began the process of trying to see what’s going on and how do we stop it from continuing. As I was going over, the plane hit the Pentagon [and] we also followed the progress of the fourth plane. I actually heard the order being relayed to shoot it down if it got to Washington, and when it crashed it took a day or two before I learned it wasn’t a fighter plane that took it down, it was the passengers.

We basically sat down almost immediately [and] looked at the [flight] manifests. There were some people who called from the plane [to their] relatives and friends, and when we found out their identities, we reached out to them to see if we could respectfully have them interviewed to see what we can learn about what had happened. Using that information, we were able to pretty quickly piece together the identity of some of the hijackers and then we saw where they were connected and we realized within a day that it was Bin Laden and al Qaeda. I mean, we suspected that, but essentially we nailed it down that day. But the real issue was what was coming next, because, for example, on September 11 there was a transponder in a fifth plane and that went off, suggesting a hijacking. Turned out it was a mistake. There was a rumor that there were taxi cabs with bombs in trunks that were going to be detonated. At one point I was on a videoconference with the State Department and all of a sudden the alarm went off and I thought, ‘Oh, my God there’s a bomb at the State Department,’ and again, [it] turned out to be a false alarm.

I make this point because looking back after 20 years, there was one day of attacks and then we were quite successful in stopping anything more. But it was by no means inevitable or obvious [that] that was what was going to happen. So I try to remind people, when you’re sitting there and you have the responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen again, you don’t have the benefit of hindsight, and therefore, you know, people can quibble with what you do. But in the end, if you do too little and more people die, that is not a burden anybody would want to bear.

If you do too little and more people die, that is not a burden anybody would want to bear.

Michael Chertoff ’78

HLT: What are your thoughts about the withdrawal from Afghanistan occurring now?

Chertoff: It’s a sad irony that we’re experiencing this on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I can’t imagine a worse marker for that milestone. I think we were right to go into Afghanistan. We had to dislodge al Qaeda. They had training camps. They had labs. They were experimenting with chemical weapons. We needed to upend that. I guess there are two questions that come to mind to be looked at in retrospect. One is, did we clearly define the mission? Do we know, as General [David] Petraeus used to say, how does this end? On the one hand, dislodging bin Laden and upending al Qaeda’s presence was good, but the question is, were we going to continue to play whack-a-mole or could we change the conditions on the ground by essentially pushing the Taliban out altogether? And if we were going to do that, that raises the second question: Was it a mistake to go into Iraq? Did we overestimate—putting aside the weapons of mass destruction, the debate about all that—did we overestimate our ability to run two wars at the same time and do them both effectively? I think that’s a fair question. We clearly didn’t want the jihadis to come back into control again and rebuild. On the other hand, did we do enough to create a sustainable government and society that could resist the Taliban? I’m sure there’s a lot that’s going to be looked back on; for example, what was the role of Pakistan in fostering the Taliban? So now, the key going forward is going to be, if we’re not going to be present, what are we going to do to make sure it doesn’t arise again? Right now, the Taliban for the most part are saying they are going to be more reasonable but I’m not holding my breath on that, so we have to have a strategy for that.

HLT: What strategy do you suggest?

Chertoff: If we can’t … find a way to incentivize [the Taliban] to on their own make sure that jihadis don’t come back—and that would be the best outcome—then we’ve got to be prepared to intervene when we see something building up. This is what happened in Syria, in Iraq, when ISIS was able to get control over a chunk of territory, they were then really able to go build up with money and resources and oil revenues and training camps. And now, as we’ve shrunk their footprint, it’s created a somewhat better situation for us. Now, I don’t know whether some of them are going to migrate over to Afghanistan and try and take care of this. So I think we’re going to need, first of all, to really understand the political dynamic between the Taliban and these other groups. We’re going to again have to dial up our intelligence collection and potentially our ability to play whack-a-mole and knock out individual threats before they come to fruition. The one good thing is modern technology with drones and other kinds of surveillance give us greater visibility into what’s happening than would have been the case 20 years ago. But we don’t want to underestimate the challenge. This is going to create yet another area we have to monitor in what is becoming a very dynamic geopolitical threat situation.

HLT: What other threats concern you looking ahead?

We are not … at the end of history now, we’re at the beginning of a new and rather dangerous and challenging chapter.

Michael Chertoff ’78

Chertoff: Iran remains a threat, certainly regionally. China is a threat, not in the sense that we are going to have a terrorist attack but we could have a dialing-up of geopolitical rivalry across a whole spectrum of areas: military dominance, economic dominance, and cyber. Cyber is an area, in particular, where we’re beginning to see a migration from theft of intellectual property and espionage into actual interference with operational activities, like we’ve seen, for example, with Colonial Pipeline or what we saw in Ukraine with the Russians taking down the power grid on a couple of occasions. We have to be concerned about the Russians being more aggressive in Europe and again using hybrid warfare. And so all of these things—supporting our allies in Asia, supporting our allies in the Middle East, supporting our allies in Europe, and supporting ourselves—we’re going to have to do all those things at the same time. So we are not … at the end of history now. We’re at the beginning of a new and rather dangerous and challenging chapter.

HLT: The country is very polarized right now. Do you think that makes it particularly hard to address these issues?

Chertoff: Absolutely. The polarization is significant in two ways. First, it makes it harder to get a unity of effort on these external threats, whether it be the pandemic or terrorism. I vividly remember the days after 9/11 going up to Capitol Hill with Bob Mueller and briefing the House and Senate on what was going on and what we had seen, and they were as one. There was no difference between Republicans and Democrats. We’ve lost a lot of that. We see now, for example with the pandemic, that the first reaction of a number of politicians is how can I turn this into a political cudgel against people from the other side? That’s very sad and it really undercuts our ability to have unity of effort. The other issue, of course, we’re facing with the current polarization is that, in addition to having to worry about jihadi terrorism, we now have to worry about domestic terrorism. We had an attempted insurrection on January 6 and had it succeeded it might have resulted in the most damaging attack on the U.S. government maybe in the history of the country, and it could have cost lives of legislators. Also an effort to overturn and interfere with the election. So we have to deal with that issue. Now, of course, the challenge there is [that] the legal restrictions on intelligence collection, domestically, are understandably much more rigorous than we have in respect to overseas. So I think that [is] yet another challenge that the current administration is going to have to deal with.

HLT: Any summary reflections?

Chertoff: Twenty years, for me having obviously been literally involved in the immediate response, it’s like yesterday. I know, there’s a whole generation of people who just graduated from college who were little infants or children at the time and it’s like a history lesson, like when I read about World War II. But if I can communicate one thing, it’s to understand that when you are living in the event, there’s by no means any certainty that it’s going to come out okay. This country has weathered some very big crises but one lesson I think we’ve learned, particularly in the last few years, is that there is no predetermined outcome. It’s what we make it, and whether it’s protecting our democracy, protecting the borders of our country, protecting us in cyberspace, we’ve all got to be willing to step up and play a role, cooperatively, to protect ourselves and our loved ones.