Former Homeland Security chief Chertoff says citizen involvement is cornerstone of security

The Colorado Statesman

The United States is facing rapidly evolving threats unforeseen when the federal government established the Department of Homeland Security a decade ago, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a former head of the department told a Denver audience last week.

Michael Chertoff, the second secretary of Homeland Security, warned against the risk of biological terrorism, cyber attacks and the rise of transnational criminal outfits that might not adhere to a particular ideology but nonetheless threaten the safety of Americans at an appearance on July 12 at the Denver Art Museum.

Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates, CELL founder Larry Mizel and Denver Police Chief Robert White at a celebration of the CELL’s new exhibit on July 12 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“Some of the most significant plots that have been disrupted by law enforcement have been a result of a tip by private citizens, somebody who saw something and spoke up,” Chertoff said. “Whether it is being on the lookout for suspicious behavior or helping a neighbor out when there’s a natural disaster, individual involvement is the cornerstone of our security.”

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, left, and attorney Norm Brownstein discuss the goings-on in Colorado at a reception at the Denver Art Museum.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Chertoff appeared at a presentation about emerging security threats at the grand opening of a redesigned exhibit at the Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab, known as the CELL, an interactive museum devoted to increasing awareness and aiding prevention of terrorism. Since its launch in 2009, the CELL has sponsored numerous talks by security experts, including current Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Chertoff’s successor.

Denver Post chairman Dean Singleton and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock toast as Rick Sapkin, Denver Police Chief Robert White, CELL founder Larry Mizel and Paul Brooks look on at a grand opening celebration of the CELL’s new exhibit followed by a discussion of terrorism on July 12 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

While he hailed the killing of Osama bin Laden as a “welcome arrival of justice” for the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, Chertoff said the terrorist organization hasn’t disappeared but, instead, “continues to change and morph and spread around various parts of the world” as “franchise operations” and affiliated groups emerge in the Arabian Peninsula and throughout Africa.

Larry Mizel and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock embrace as former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff speaks at a grand opening celebration of the CELL’s new exhibit.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“The fact that the threat has changed does not mean it has gone away,” he said, adding, “It will be incumbent on us to evolve our own defensive securities and strategies to meet these threats.”

U.S. Attorney John Walsh and Anti-Defmation League regional director Scott Levin visit at a celebration marking a new exhibit at the CELL museum on July 12 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Chertoff was interrupted five times by audience members who stood and challenged his premise, including one who yelled, “Less people have been killed by terrorists than bee stings! Why are we so scared of terrorism?” As security guards hustled the protester from the room, he added, “Terrorism is not real!”

Kevin Klein, director of the state Department of Public Safety, and Dana Reynolds of the Southeast Counter Terrorism Unit visit at the opening celebration of the CELL’s new exhibit.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Chertoff was joined by Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former editor at the Rocky Mountain News, for the panel discussion moderated by Dean Singleton, chairman and publisher of The Denver Post.

Retired Maj. Gen. Andy Love and Virginia Love visit at a grand opening celebration of the CELL’s new exhibit on July 12 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Chertoff and May agreed that sanctions are a necessary response to attempts by Iran to produce nuclear weapons, but they also said that military action might be inevitable because Iranian leaders aren’t the kind of rational foes the West is used to facing.

A protester claims “Terrorism isn't real” as a security guard herds him from the audience during a panel discussion on security threats on July 12 at the Denver Art Museum.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“They’re building nuclear weapons, that’s their goal, and they’ve been very specific about what they want to use those weapons for,” said May, who recalled witnessing the Iranian revolution as a young reporter in 1979. Maintaining that Iran’s leaders are intent on “overthrowing the West,” he asserted, “This is the most dangerous regime in this world in this century and it’s very important to recognize this.”

Major General (USAFR retired) Whitney Mason, the former Director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security for Colorado, left, talks with Michael Chertoff, the second United States Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, right. Melanie Pearlman, executive director of the CELL, and attorney Steve Farber with the law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, listen to the conversation during a reception at the Denver Art Museum July 12.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Chertoff told the crowd not to expect the Iranian government to respond to the policies that averted nuclear war with the Soviet Union or other nations with nuclear bombs.

Attorney Don Bain, left, momentarily looks away as Cliff May, center, former editor at the Rocky Mountain News and a participant on that evening’s panel, chats with a guest at the reception beforehand.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“It would be very hard to assume that an Iranian regime with nuclear weapons would be subject to the same kind of deterrence that we had during the Cold War,” he said, adding that Iran’s rulers have different motivations than other nuclear powers.

Civic activist Arlene Hirschfeld and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock enjoy a moment together before the program on the threats of terrorism sponsored by the CELL.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“Frankly, they look at what happened in Libya and they think, ‘Wow, if Qaddafi had kept his nuclear weapons, he’d still be the dictator of Libya,’ and I think that enters into their minds. So you cannot count on deterrence, you cannot afford to let them have a weapon,” Chertoff said.

Rick Brown, COO of Mizel Financial Holdings, Inc., the CELL’s founders Courtney and Larry Mizel, and Lindsay Brown pose together at a reception before the program begins at the DAM.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Asked by Singleton to name the biggest threat facing the country, Chertoff described three possibilities. In the near term, he said, localized attacks — including “a bomb in a mall or a bus station” or a terrorist spraying gunfire in a crowd — could be on the horizon. While those wouldn’t “pose an existential threat” to the United States, he said, “a series of attacks like that could start to have some real damage to the economy.”

Over the next five years, he predicted, the country could face “enormously damaging” biological attacks or serious dangers delivered over computer networks, and security forces had better be prepared.

“Often we are plagued in this country by the characteristic that, if something hasn’t happened before, we don’t get serious until it happens, and this is a case where one bite at the apple could get really dangerous,” he said.

May said it was important for the nation’s guardians to stay nimble avoid thinking they’ve got the enemy figured out. He said that what worries him is “a failure of imagination on our part — the inability to foresee what the bad guys might do.” On top of that, he said, he fears “that we will lose the will to defend ourselves, our culture, our nation, our civilization, that we will choose appeasement.” There is no way, he said, to “make ourselves inoffensive to our enemies,” adding that, “weakness is provocative.”

U.S. Attorney John Walsh — named Colorado’s top federal law enforcement officer by President Barack Obama — hailed the forum participants for their contention that Republican and Democratic administrations have stood up to threats with equal strength.

“There has been an enormous continuity,” Walsh told The Colorado Statesman as the event was concluding. “When it comes to the work of the Department of Homeland Security and the work of the FBI and the Department of Justice has been focused on protecting the American people, and doing it in a constitutional and appropriate way,” he said, adding that “this is not an issue that has to be a partisan one.”

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Bentley Rayburn, a two-time congressional candidate from Colorado’s 5th District, praised Chertoff and May for sounding the right alarms.

“It really depends on every citizen not only to stay vigilant but to be informed,” Rayburn told The Statesman. “There are a lot of threats, from state-sponsored Iranian terrorists groups down to your local nutcase.”

He added that his experience running war games for the military bolstered his agreement with the warnings the panel had raised about Iran.

“This regime in Iran thinks completely differently than we do in the West.” The Iranian government, he said, thinks that they are part of the “end times,” according to Muslim prophecy. “You take a guy who doesn’t think he’s going to die, and you’ve got a dangerous, dangerous combination. As bad as the Soviets were, they were at least rational. We can’t depend on them thinking the same way we do.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com