The U.S. Senate has unanimously confirmed Judge Michael Chertoff, who most recently served on a federal appeals court in New Jersey, as Secretary of Homeland Security.
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Senator Susan Collins of Maine offered praise for the nominee shortly before the vote.
"Judge Michael Chertoff is eminently qualified for this important position," she said. "In his distinguished career he has established a strong reputation as a tough prosecutor. But Mr. [Senate] President, he has also established a reputation as a fierce defender of civil liberties."
Judge Chertoff served as head of the Justice Department's criminal division from June 2001 to June 2003, when it was reviewing memos that sought to narrow the definition of torture under U.S. law and setting rules on the detention of illegal immigrants.
Democrats wanted to know whether the nominee had any connection to a classified memo in which Federal Bureau of Investigation agents reportedly sought guidance about questioning terrorism suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They held up Judge Chertoff's confirmation for a week as they sought unsuccessfully to have the Justice Department release the document.
"The administration persists in displaying a disturbing disregard for our constitutional role in presidential nominations," said Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. By refusing to come clean and provide necessary documents, and by discouraging responsiveness and candor from its nominees on the issue of torture, the administration is only making the crisis worse, further embarrassing the nation in the eyes of the world and casting greater doubt on its commitment to the rule of law."
At his confirmation hearing earlier this month, Judge Chertoff said he had no knowledge of the FBI memo or who sent it. He also denied approving any interrogation techniques that violate anti-torture laws.
Democrats also used the debate on Judge Chertoff's confirmation to criticize President Bush's proposed cuts in homeland security spending at the state and local level.
"As more gaps in our security are uncovered and exploited, and as more work is being done to enhance our capabilities in identifying and closing these gaps, the Bush administration's policies have been to provide less resources, including unthinkable cuts of $615 million to state homeland security initiatives and first responders," said Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
Judge Chertoff becomes only the second secretary of Homeland Security, succeeding Tom Ridge at the agency created after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.