Dirty Little Secrets

The Bush White House thinks it’s being clever by naming a prosecutor instead of a criminal to head the Department of Homeland Security. But Mike Chertoff’s appointment in the wake of the failed nomination of scandal-plagued Bernie Kerik (now under investigation by multiple law-enforcement agencies) is as political as one can imagine. Especially for those who know the arcana of politics in New Jersey, where Chertoff was U.S. attorney, and where his naming to the Homeland Security job caused jaws to drop.

Chertoff was a political attack dog in that job, indicting and convicting a raft of Democratic officeholders. But one whom Chertoff deliberately let get away was his big buddy Bob "The Torch" Torricelli, forced to resign his U.S. Senate seat from Sopranoland in a major corruption scandal. Nick Acocella, editor of the respected insider newsletter New Jersey Politifax, recalls that, at the height of the Torricelli scandal, and while Chertoff was U.S. attorney, he saw The Torch and Chertoff, at a South Jersey Jewish banquet, embrace and huddle intimately "like twins separated at birth." One would have thought a federal prosecutor would have kept his distance from a target of criminal investigations that were making daily headlines in the Jersey press.

Also in this issue

To read about the confirmation hearings of Alberto Gonzales, President Bush's choice to be the Attorney General , click here.

To read about President Bush's new chief domestic policy advisor, Claude Allen, click here.

When Chertoff was named by Bush to head the Justice Department’s Criminal Division — partly because he was a skilled political hit man who’d also raised a ton of money as financial vice chair of Bush’s Garden State campaign in 2000 — it was an open secret in Jersey that he squelched an indictment of Torricelli as a reward for The Torch’s support of key Bush legislation the Democratic Party leadership opposed. (Many of the fat cats Chertoff shook down for Bush had also been huge givers to The Torch.)

Long active in the Federalist Society — a conspiratorial brotherhood of legal reactionaries — Chertoff, at Justice, helped to write the civil-liberties–shredding Patriot Act. He was John Ashcroft’s honcho in the indiscriminate grilling of over 5,000 Arab-Americans after 9/11, devised the use of "material witness" warrants to lock up people of Middle Eastern descent and hold them indefinitely without trial, and on behalf of the Justice Department wrote a brief (in Chavez v. Martinez) arguing that there was no constitutional right to be free of coercive police questioning.

Moreover, Chertoff wrote legislation, known as the Feeney Amendment, that gutted federal sentencing guidelines, under which federal judges were allowed to use some discretion when sentencing criminal defendants, by preventing judges from shortening sentences — and, moreover, required judges who deviated from the Feeney Amendment to have their names and actions reported to the Justice Department, thus establishing what Senator Teddy Kennedy denounced as a judicial "blacklist."

Why would Chertoff give up a lifetime seat on the federal bench to take a job in the hornets’ nest of problems that is the DHS? According to a top Jersey Democratic pol who knows Chertoff well, Chertoff — described as being "as cold-blooded as they come" — has a personal agenda that includes becoming U.S. attorney general and, eventually, grabbing a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. But there’s a problem for Chertoff with conservative Republicans — he happens to be pro-choice. So, taking the DHS job is Chertoff’s way to "make his bones," as they say in Jersey, and make headlines as a hard-line persecutor of "the towel-heads" to please the right and neutralize his abortion stance.

But Chertoff has zero experience in running anything remotely resembling the DHS, a mammoth with 180,000 employees and 22 federal agencies under its umbrella. He was picked for two reasons: his political loyalty to Bush (he won’t go off the reservation on his own as Tom Ridge did) and the fact that he’s already been confirmed by the Senate thrice, so he has no hidden Kerik problems and will sail through with little or no opposition from the spineless Democrats (he’s already been endorsed by Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Lieberman for the DHS job). But choosing someone on the basis of confirmability rather than qualifications is dangerous — as is the choice of a hyper-ambitious Torquemada for a job with enormous power over our already-reduced rights and liberties, which will no doubt be further eroded under Chertoff.

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/


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