WASHINGTON -- A year ago, when Michael Chertoff was brought in to run the Department of Homeland Security, he was hailed by Republicans and Democrats as the epitome of competence and good judgment. At his confirmation hearing, a Senate Democrat called him "the right man for this job." The Senate confirmed him, 98-0.
But now, with evidence piling up about how the department botched its response to Hurricane Katrina, Chertoff's reputation has been impugned. Some question whether Chertoff can survive in his job.
"It's fair to say that he's vulnerable," said Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, a member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that has been investigating the government's response to Katrina. Chertoff, Coleman said, "came in with really high expectations. He was a star. Now, his halo has been diminished."
Chertoff is expected to face tough questioning today before the Senate homeland security panel. (He was to appear yesterday, but the hearing was delayed.) Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who praised Chertoff as the right man for the job, expressed dismay yesterday over how the department responded to Katrina.
"We have found enough pre-landfall warnings of Hurricane Katrina's destructive force to warrant a full-bore emergency response from the top levels of the federal government before the storm struck," Lieberman said. "It is inconceivable to me how the response could have been so weak."
The White House came to Chertoff's defense yesterday, but its words were reminiscent of President Bush's praise for Michael D. Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who was forced to resign when his mishandling of the disaster became known.
"Chertoff is doing a great job," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "The president appreciates his strong leadership." Chertoff, McClellan said, "is someone committed to doing everything he can to protect the American people and to continuing to take steps to make sure we are better prepared for the threats we face."
In September, the president -- visiting New Orleans days after the storm -- said to Brown, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Ten days later, Brown resigned under pressure. FEMA is part of the Homeland Security Department, and Brown reported to Chertoff.
New reports on the federal disaster response effort are likely to hold more bad news for Chertoff. A House committee plans to issue a 600-page report today that accuses his department of having a "blinding lack of situational awareness and disjoined decision making" that "needlessly compounded and prolonged Katrina's horrors."
The president's homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, who is heading the White House inquiry on Katrina, is about to make her report public. A draft version is said to pin much of the blame for the government's ineffectual response on weak management in Chertoff's department.
A big part of Chertoff's problem is that Brown's shortcomings are judged to have been so apparent when measured against the death and destruction of Hurricane Katrina that blaming him for the government's failings might be politically insufficient.
As Coleman put it: "Chertoff should have known that his battleground commander didn't have command."
Some experts said that to blame Chertoff is missing the point. James J. Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the House committee report shows that when Katrina hit, there was no effective national structure for responding to a disaster.
"Headlines are asking whether we should be pointing the finger at Chertoff or Brown, but the point is, there's a whole slew of problems they identified," he said. "I don't think the response would have been much different no matter who it was, because we lack the capacity."
Given the political climate in Washington, in which Republicans are beginning to worry that Bush administration problems might become their own, Chertoff might be vulnerable.
"If pressure builds on the administration to find a second scapegoat, it's Michael Chertoff," said Paul Light, New York University professor of government organization.
Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.