Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff testified at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Wednesday about the recent terrorism arrests in Europe and speculation about his possible appointment to replace departing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Speaking to the Monday arrest of eight terror suspects in Denmark, and the Tuesday arrest of three suspects in Germany, Chertoff said the threat to Americans remains strong.
"Even in the last 36 hours, I think we've seen how real the threat remains," Chertoff said. "Arrests in Denmark and Germany indicate that al Qaeda continues to carry out acts of war against the West."
"American interests overseas remain very much at risk," Chertoff warned.
Arrests in Europe
Chertoff confirmed that government counterparts in Germany and Denmark say they have verified terror ties.
"The Danish have confirmed that they saw al Qaeda connections with the people that they arrested, and I think the Germans have indicated that the people they arrested … were connected with Islamic Jihad Union, which is an affiliated group," Chertoff said.
The secretary also indicated that both countries claim they have found evidence that the suspects had trained in South Asia.
Chertoff has expressed concern over training camps in tribal regions of Pakistan, areas the U.S. government sees as a safe haven for such activity.
Visa Waiver Vulnerabilities
In reaction to this week's European terrorism arrests, Chertoff reiterated his stance that the current visa waiver program leaves gaps in U.S. security from potential threats coming from Europe.
Currently, the U.S. State Department allows 27 countries, mainly in Europe, to participate in the program.
While acknowledging the program is "wonderful" for tourists and other travelers with legitimate purposes for travel to the United States, Chertoff said this week's arrests, in addition to the foiled bombing plots in the United Kingdom earlier in the summer, illustrate a flaw.
The visa waiver program "does open a vulnerability because by eliminating the visa process we lose one of the barriers to terrorists or criminals that we would otherwise have," Chertoff said.
"It means we first encounter the person when they arrive here in the U.S. as opposed to encountering them in a consulate overseas," he continued.
Sealing the Gap
Chertoff said the Department of Homeland Security will be setting up the Electronic Authorization Program, part of the recently passed 9/11 commission legislation, to seal up the gap.
The EAP would require travelers, including those from current visa waiver program countries, to submit some key identification data before they arrive in the United States.
"It's only a six-hour plane ride from western Europe to the United States," Chertoff said. "That's why we're working not only to build up the… to toughen our visa waiver program up, but we're working to get more intelligence" so the United States and Europe can work together.
Chertoff said terrorists will always look to exploit gaps.
"We need to make sure we stay ahead of them," he said.
House Homeland Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., expressed concern on the current visa waiver program, because there is no way to confirm that visitors leave the United States.
"No system exists on overstays," Thompson said. "It's a problem."
In light of recent administration resignations, when asked about his intention to stay at DHS, Chertoff said, "Like everybody else in a Senate-confirmed position, I serve at the pleasure of the president, and so long as it pleases him to have me serve in this position, and of course, God willing, I'm happy to continue to do this job up until the very last day of the administration."
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation Aug. 27. His last day at the department is Sept. 17, and there has been wide speculation that Chertoff, a former assistant attorney general, U.S. attorney and federal judge, would be tapped to succeed Gonzales.
Asked about the possibility that he would be appointed to replace Gonzales, Chertoff said it would be "presumptuous" to speak for the president, but that he has "indicated what my intent is."
The Justice Department's Solicitor General Paul Clement has been named interim attorney general and will assume the post upon Gonzales' departure.
Clement will likely hold the position until the White House names a replacement and the Senate confirms that nominee.
Taking a shot at the turmoil of the Gonzales era at the department, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., said to Chertoff, "Should you move to the Justice Department, I think you would spend a year and a half digging out of a very deep hole."
Though Chertoff is widely seen as a viable successor to Gonzales, the White House seems unlikely to move Chertoff, which would leave his post at Homeland Security open.