Home / Russert Fails To Ask Chertoff Relevant Follow-Up Questions on Homeland Security

Russert Fails To Ask Chertoff Relevant Follow-Up Questions on Homeland Security

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Tim Russert had landed a coup, getting a chance to interview the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, just a few days after the London bombings.

Russert, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, asked reasonable questions. But Chertoff provided a series of mushy, non-specific answers — the sort of boilerplate information that was, for the most part, unrelated to Thursday’s attack.

But Russert failed to challenge Chertoff, avoiding necessary follow-up questions to wade through the secretary’s mush. Why? It can only be because Russert failed to sufficiently prepare for the interview, or because he was being soft in the wake of this latest chapter on the “war on terror.”

Let’s rule out lack of preparation, because Russert is a champion for doing one’s homework. As he points out in his book, Big Russ & Me:

RUSSERT (page 147): The second lesson from that day is that the key to success is preparation. In journalism, it’s absolutely crucial. Like everyone else, I have days when things go well, and days when they don’t. But one mistake I have never made is to show up unprepared for an interview.

So that’s settled. Therefore I ask, why is Russert incapable of wading through the mush?

Let’s take a look at a few key points of the interview:

RUSSERT: Since September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda has been responsible for at least 17 bombings around the world, causing the death of some 700 people. Is al-Qaeda alive and well?

CHERTOFF: Well, it is, but I think we have to be careful to distinguish between two types of al-Qaeda activities. There’s the actual core group itself, which has discipline and owes loyalty to bin Laden and its top leadership, but then there is a network of terror organizations going back even before 2001 that is sympathetic, that gets aid and assistance from al-Qaeda in some circumstances, but that is also semi-autonomous. So we have a kind of a range of groups that are out there committing acts of terror, and some of them are, frankly, focused on local issues in other parts of the world.

Chertoff’s answer is unrelated to London, which should have led Russert to one of these follow-up questions:

RUSSERT: Is the London bombing proof that our strategy in the “war on terror” is unsuccessful? Have we focused too much of our attention to fighting the Iraqi insurgents, and not enough to dismantling Al Qaeda and its affiliates?

RUSSERT: Have the Bush and Blair administrations placed too much emphasis on winning the war in Iraq, leaving themselves vulnerable to attacks such as the one Thursday?

Instead, Russert asked about sleeper cells in London and the U.S., to which Chertoff offered an answer unrelated to London, which sounds more like a veiled request for support of the USA Patriot Act:

CHERTOFF: Well, we’ve seen sleeper cells, and we’ve seen cases being made publicly involving sleeper cells. And one of the important things to recognize is a sleeper cell can become operational in the blink of an eye. A lot of times we see criticism of the government because a case is brought and critics say, “Well, you know, these people were not really doing anything yet. They were just training and they were sitting there, you know, having been trained somewhere like in Afghanistan.” But the point is, we can’t wait until the fuse is lit. We have to move actively against sleeper cells when they’re in the planning and training phase, and not wait until they become operational.


That was followed by a lengthy back-and-forth — the one time when Russert acted like the “bulldog” he claims to be — about the color-coded alert system. A question and four follow-ups, just days after an Al Qaeda attack? What a waste of valuable airtime.


That discussion leads to this question:

RUSSERT: Stephen Flynn, who had written a book, America the Vulnerable, who will be on after you, Mr. Secretary. This is from his book. “…the second Bush Administration should be mobilizing to bolster our national resiliency in the face of future attacks. … The president’s 2006 budget request asked for just $600 million for safeguarding all of the nation’s seaports, mass transit systems, railways, bridges, tunnels and energy facilities. This is roughly what U.S. taxpayers are spending every three days on the war in Iraq.”

Is there enough money being spent to protect us, our mass transportation system?

CHERTOFF: Well, actually, you know, the president’s budget in 2006 puts more money in the category of infrastructure protection than had been the case previously. So we’ve been raising the level in terms of our request, and we’re putting more resources in. And, of course, there are billions of dollars in security grants that go to cities and states that are also available. …

Before letting Chertoff continue with this vague answer, Russert could have interjected — as he often does — to try to pin the Homeland Secretary down.

Assuming Russert was as well prepared as he says he is, he might have asked:

RUSSERT: Last September, Senate Republicans prevented a Democratic plan to spend roughly $3 billion on various Homeland Security needs, including $350 million for rail security, $300 million for port security, and $70 million for security at chemical plants. Given the various criticisms that the administration has failed to spend sufficiently in those areas, is it worth revisiting these proposals in the wake of the London bombings?

RUSSERT: Your department’s acting inspector general, Richard Skinner, testified last month that spending for Coast Guard needs was insufficient to overcome various barriers, “most importantly the deteriorating readiness of its fleet assets.” How do you respond?


Here’s one final example of Russert asking questions related to the London bombings, receiving answers unrelated to the bombings, and failing to follow up appropriately:

RUSSERT: Senator Biden, from Delaware, who takes Amtrak every day from his home in Delaware, said that we need $1.2 billion over the next five years, that all the security analysts have told him that. Will you support increasing money for railway security by a billion dollars over the next five years?

CHERTOFF: Well, of course, we’re interested in getting adequate resources for rail security. We’re going to support anything that gives us the kind of resources that we need to make a risk-based approach to parceling out our resources and our support for these security measures. But, again, I want to emphasize an important thing is not to lock us into categories because next week there could be an incident somewhere else in the world in a different sector of transportation, and we’re going to hear a call to fortify that. So we need to have the ability to be flexible and apply these resources in a disciplined and intelligent manner across the board.

RUSSERT: But knowing the American political process, in light of what happened in London, do you have any doubt that there will be in Congress a vote for increasing security money for railway, subways and buses?

CHERTOFF: And as I say, we’re going to welcome additional resources, but I want to just remind people, you know, everything’s a tradeoff. We don’t want to move money, for example, from ports into rail because then we’re going to have an issue with ports. We have to be balanced across the board and that means we’ve got to focus on specific intelligence, specific vulnerabilities and, of course, consequences.

Why is “everything a tradeoff?” Russert doesn’t ask, so viewers didn’t find out. Our entire budget for transportation security is the equivalent of three days in Iraq, and while I wouldn’t suggest cutting funds to Iraq — we broke it, we have to fix it — how about trading off with something else, like the Bush Administration’s $1.3 trillion of permanent tax cuts for the wealthy? Or, given that this administration has no problem with huge deficits, what’s wrong with adding, say, an extra .007 percent — the equivalent of $3 billion added onto $427 billion?

Of course, Russert could have pointed out that last month, the Republican-led Senate Appropriations Committee voted last month to slash money for rail and transit security grants to state and local government by a third from the $150 million devoted to them this year. It was only after the London bombing that various Republicans suggested a reversal of that policy.

But Russert moved on, to a question and follow-up on metal detectors in the subway systems.


Why does any of this matter?

RUSSERT: You have no doubt that there will be another terrorist attack on America?

CHERTOFF: I have to say, I mean, I know the desire is there and the capability is there, but, you know, my job and the job of 183,000 people who work with me is to do everything we can to prevent that from happening, and then if God forbid it does, to protect ourselves and to be able to respond appropriately.

Russert could have followed-up, citing various reports criticial of the administration, but why bother? It’s easier to listen politely, and move on.


This article first appeared on Journalists Against Bush’s B.S. (JABBS)

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About David R. Mark

  • iuffui

    You said: “Tim Russert had landed a coup, getting a chance to interview the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, just a few days after the London bombings.”

    I guess you missed the fact that Chertoff was on every broadcast network Sunday morning show?

  • What I meant was “a great opportunity,” not necessarily an exclusive.

  • Russert DID ask good questions, even if they aren’t the ones you might have asked. He got a lot of vital information out of Chertoff, and it’s possible that he laid off some of the issues you brought up because he knew that his next interview with Flynn and Admiral Loy was going to cover a lot of the ground you thought he should have covered with Chertoff – and it did go over those issues in great detail and far more candidly and pessimistically than Chertoff would have been able to address them.


  • the interview was mostly fluff due to the lack of follow-ups…canned answers full of politico non-speak

    it would be interesting to see if the Questions were given to Chertoff beforehand..but that is immaterial at this point

    sad day indeed, when someone like Russert misses out on pertinent follow up questions and allows the interviewee to do what they like, rather than shooting for the actual “meat” to be had…

    it seems to be rampant when journalism and investigative reporting are tossed aside for fluff in order to boost ratings and advertising sales rather than pursuing the mission of the Fourth Estate


  • RJ

    I have to admit, Mr. Mark has a great post here. Russert is usually tougher with his guests than he appeared to be with Chertoff.

    The question is: Was he equally easy on his other (anti-adminstration) guests? Because, if he was, this would sort of balance it all out, wouldn’t it?

  • not really , RJ..i don’t care who was in that seat…softballing doesn’t serve the Purpose of investigative and informative Journalism

    Russert has been slipping for months now…ever since the WH interview with the Shrub…same pattern, decent Questions, they get avoided, and no follow up

    there have been exceptions, he still hits hard on occasion…but far too many very important Interviews went like the one cited here

    too bad…since Berny Shaw left the Scene, there are very few that will stand up and get tough…all part of the Game, i know..if you get too tough , you start losing Guests with big names…

    ratings and money, rather than the Principles of the 4th Estate…

    i consider that much more dangeros to our Democracy than even the “Patriot” Act…damnable as that is


  • Thanks, RJ.

  • I haven’t had a chance yet to read through your entire post, but I read the first question that you provided as evidence that Russert was soft. I’m not going to say whether your conclusion is correct or not (again, I neither read the entire post nor had a chance to watch the program) but I am going to take issue with one particular element. You state that

    “Chertoff provided a series of mushy, non-specific answers — the sort of boilerplate information that was, for the most part, unrelated to Thursday’s attack.”

    His response to the first question though is, in fact, related to the London bombings and has the additional bonus of answering the question directly and to my astonishment, he does so with the first sentence. Russert asks if al-Qaeda is alive and well. Chertoff’s first words are “Well it is…” This is a pretty direct answer. The rest of his response is an attempt to clarify between al-Qaeda and the groups that al-Qaeda supports. His response seems to say that either we can eliminate those threats by cutting off the head of the network (consisting of bin Laden and his closest allies) or that even the elimination of al-Qaeda will not necessarily end the types of attacks we recently saw carried out in London. These attacks were not terribly difficult to carry out. The timing of the blasts had to be synchronized which takes some effort, but this could have been carried out by any of these smaller groups. Cutting al-Qaeda out of the picture would put a financial burden on these smaller groups, but they would still be able to function without orders. It is even possible to say it is likely this will happen because of his final comment in that response:

    “…some of them are, frankly, focused on local issues in other parts of the world.”

    Therefore, even motivation to carry out attacks would not die with al-Qaeda.

    Again, I haven’t read the entire post, but on this question at least, I think you fail to prove the basis of your post.

  • I disagree. Only a moron would have answered “No, Al Qaeda is not alive and well” in the days prior to the London bombing.

    The first part of the answer is direct, but like I said, boilerplate — unless you’re expectation for this administration’s ability to answer a simple question is lower than mine.

  • I was just saying that that one question was a direct answer and was in fact related.

    And prior to the London bombing, I think most of the Bush administration would have said that al-Qaeda had been marginalized, and hence, Bush doesn’t think about bin Laden all that often. So it’s nice to see that someone is at least able to say otherwise, even if it takes a terrorist attack to make it happen.

    And it’s your, not you’re.

  • Thanks for the grammar correction. Oy.

    Even if you believe that Chertoff’s answer to that question varies from traditional Bush Administration boilerplate — I don’t — that’s a small part of the overall interview.

    The point is not even really about Chertoff’s answers — it’s about Russert’s questions. He is willing to grill the likes of Howard Dean and Bob Kerrey, but yesterday was not the first time he turned to mush speaking to a Bush Administration official.

    His interview with Andrew Card was painful to watch. And his interview recently of Donald Rumsfeld was similar to the Chertoff interview — decent-enough questions, but no follow-ups, no probing. It was as if he didn’t even listen to the answers.

  • Maurice


    you live in a Republic not a Democracy. I don’t believe the Patriot Act is a problem for you.