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Chertoff, Michael


CHERTOFF, MICHAEL (1953– ), U.S. prosecutor, judge, secretary of homeland security. Chertoff was born in Elizabeth, n.j., the son and grandson of rabbis. His grandfather, Rabbi Paul Chertoff, was a member of the Talmud faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York for more than 40 years. His father, Rabbi Gershon Chertoff, led Temple B'nai Israel in Elizabeth. His brother, Mordechai, is also a rabbi.

Chertoff earned undergraduate and law degrees at Harvard University. He was a clerk to Justice William J. Brennan Jr. of the United States Supreme Court from 1979 to 1980 and joined the Washington law firm Latham & Watkins, serving until 1983. Moving to Manhattan to join the United States Attorney's office, he was selected to work on an investigation of organized crime alongside the head of the office, United States Attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani. The goal was to build a case against the group made up of the five Mafia families that ran organized crime in New York. Chertoff became the lead prosecutor when Giuliani stepped aside to handle another case. In a case that made history, Chertoff obtained the conviction of the leaders of the Genovese, Colombo, and Lucchese crime families and earned a reputation as a gifted trial lawyer.

In 1987 Chertoff moved to the Newark prosecutor's office, became interim United States attorney, and was named to the post in 1990 by President George Bush. Chertoff served until 1994, when he was named special counsel to the Senate committee investigating a land deal involving President Bill *Clinton and others known as Whitewater. He served until 1996 and returned to Latham & Watkins as a partner in New Jersey. In 2001, under a new Republican administration, Chertoff took charge of the Justice Department's criminal division and, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, advocated a new tactic – declaring suspects to be "material witnesses" and locking them up without charging them with any crime, just as he had done with mob figures before. Many civil rights advocates objected to the department's detention of dozens of uncharged terror suspects as material witnesses. But to his supporters, the tactic was typical of Chertoff 's willingness to use smart, aggressive, and creative tactics to meet the newly urgent terrorism threat. For nearly two years Chertoff was the Bush administration's architect and exemplar of tough tactics against suspected terrorists. The Justice Department claimed a number of high-profile convictions in terrorism cases during Chertoff 's tenure, but it suffered from a number of missteps as well. A report by the department's inspector general in 2004 criticized the department's detention of more than 700 illegal immigrants after the Sept. 11 attacks, most of whom turned out to have no connection to terrorism.

One of the department's best-known convictions under Chertoff came against John Walker Lindh, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting he had supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. That case also created complications for Chertoff when he was nominated to be a judge on the United States Court of Appeals. Democrats questioned his explanation as to why the fbi was allowed to interview Lindh after his family hired a lawyer to represent him. Chertoff contended that he was acting "in a time of war."

Chertoff has strong ties to Judaism and the Jewish community. In Bernardsville, n.j., where he resided, he was a member of Congregation B'nai Israel. His two children attended Jewish day school and his wife, Meryl, a lawyer, was chairman of the regional Anti-Defamation League's civil rights committee. In 2005 Chertoff was unexpectedly nominated to become the second secretary of homeland security, a federal agency composed of 22 subagencies and numbering 180,000 employees. The position is of cabinet rank and Chertoff gave up lifetime tenure as a judge to take the position.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

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