Five Questions with Chad Sweet

Former DHS Chief of Staff Chad Sweet joins us this month to reflect on the early days of the agency, from its post-9/11 response to the story behind the move of the Coast Guard Mess from the Department of Transportation and much more.

Former DHS Chief of Staff Chad Sweet joins us this month to reflect on the early days of the agency, from its post-9/11 response to the story behind the move of the Coast Guard Mess from the Department of Transportation and much more.  After leaving DHS, Secretary Chertoff and Sweet co-founded The Chertoff Group to consult with companies and governments on their own security as well as to advise and invest in companies in the security industry. Sweet, also a former member of the CIA Clandestine Service, offers his take on our national security and tells us what keeps him up at night.

Q:  Every year on 9/11 we naturally reflect on the tragic losses of that day 22 years ago.  We’re grateful that President Bush modernized our national security infrastructure in a way that fostered cooperation among agencies and prevented another attack.  When you arrived at DHS in 2006, the Agency was less than four years old. What are your reflections from that time at DHS?

First, you are right that the nation owes a debt of gratitude to the strong and decisive leadership that President Bush demonstrated in response to the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor.  On that fateful day, I was working in New York City at the old Headquarters of Goldman Sachs, which was a few blocks away from the World Trade Center.  Like most Americans, I will never forget when President Bush stood in the smoldering rubble of the attack and spoke so powerfully from his heart with that bullhorn to rally our Nation.  It stirred within all of us a desire to come together as Americans to confront this dangerous new threat that the Nation faced.

Second, I played football in Texas.  Before DHS, our Nation’s defense of the Homeland against terrorist attacks was like a very talented football team trying to run plays without a quarterback.  You might make a touchdown here or there, but your opponent can run all over you by exploiting your seams and lack of full coordination.  President Bush recognized we desperately needed a quarterback and boldly put one in – DHS.

It was one of the greatest privileges of my life to join with so many dedicated men & women who came together to help stand up that key coordinating agency.  At the time, the formation of DHS was the single largest reorganization of the U.S. government since the formation of the Department of Defense after World War II.  Secretary Michael Chertoff and I stood on the broad shoulders of Secretary Tom Ridge and his team, who did an amazing job of the initial stand up of the Department.  We then helped further integrate and build out what they so skillfully helped start.

My final reflection is twofold.  First, whether in business or in government, results matter.  The actions President Bush took to secure and defend the United States after 9/11 all boil down to the following powerful result: After 9/11 to the end of the Bush Administration, over 20,000 innocent men, women and children were killed by terrorist attacks around the world – from London and Madrid to Bombay and Bali.  Fact: Not one of those terrorist attacks was successful on U.S. soil.  Freedom isn’t free.  That powerful outcome was a direct result of President Bush’s bold decision to create DHS and his leadership in getting it to work effectively with all our other highly dedicated agencies and allies.

Finally, we all yearn for a sense of purpose in life.  As I look back on my life, I have been fortunate to have experienced some success in business, but other than my faith, nothing has given me more of a sense of mission like my public service in DHS and the CIA.  My time at DHS was one of the most purposeful times in my life and I remain deeply grateful to President Bush for having given me the opportunity to serve along with so many dedicated patriots in his Administration.

Q: Based on your time in the CIA Clandestine Service, your time as Chief of Staff at DHS, and continuing in your role as Co-Founder and CEO of the Chertoff Group, how do you assess our national security priorities and capabilities today?

While our overall national security capabilities had no near-peer competitor for decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, today we face serious competition from our closest near-peer, China.  I lived in Asia for six years and I can say with high confidence that the Chinese are watching closely what we are doing in Ukraine to inform their global strategy as well as their plans for Taiwan.  At the BCA reunion in Dallas this past May, President Bush once again spoke with his usual moral and strategic clarity.  I recall him saying if the United States does not lead, the world will not follow, that our leadership is indispensable for collective action against autocracy.  The President closed by calling on all of us to urge our representatives to support Zelensky against Putin like we supported Churchill against Hitler.  That’s straight talk from a clear-eyed leader.

Q: At the BCA reunion in Dallas this past May, I’m sure some of your colleagues asked what security issue keeps you up at night. How do you answer that question?

What keeps me up at night is that a small but vocal isolationist minority in our Party keeps attempting to get the United States to waiver on supporting Ukraine to push back Russia to its borders.  We know this is happening in part because Russia is meddling once again in our Presidential elections to divide us by spreading misinformation through botnets and social media.  Putin is badly losing his ill-conceived and illegal invasion.  We’ve spent approximately 5% of one year’s defense budget on military assistance supporting the very capable and courageous Ukrainians.  With that 5% we’ve literally helped destroy or incapacitate approximately 50% of Russia’s conventional warfighting capability without the loss of a single American warfighter.  That’s one of the best returns on investment ever in U.S. military history.  The only thing Putin can do short of the tactical nuclear option is to try to divide us and wait us out.  If we let Putin divide us and take Ukraine, not only would it pave the way for Putin to then consolidate gains for invading his next target, it will “green light” China to take Taiwan – a country we are deeply dependent on for our supply of semiconductors – the lifeblood of the modern digital economy.  That’s why many of us Bush-Cheney alumni have formed “Ukraine Strong” – a not-for-profit dedicated to educating both the American people and Members of Congress on why continuing military support of Ukraine is not charity, but in the core strategic interest of the United States.  If you would like to join us or to learn more, please visit our website at or email me at [email protected].

Q:  Can you recall a meaningful moment or leadership lesson learned from your time in the administration?

Interestingly, one of my most meaningful moments happened in multiple parts that started at the very end of the Administration and then set up something even more special several years later.

As many BCA members will recall, the handoff from the Clinton Administration to the Bush Administration experienced some “frictions.”  As the end of the second term was approaching, Josh Bolton called in all the Chiefs of Staff of every agency and made it crystal clear that President Bush was insistent that we were not to treat the Obama Administration the way we had been treated.  Josh said the President expected the highest level of professionalism in the handoff and if anyone was caught removing the letter “O” key off keyboards or acting in any way unprofessionally, heads would roll.  While I understood from Josh “The Command’s Intent” to be non-partisan and professional, I had the added challenge that this newly formed Department had never transitioned before – much less to an Administration of another party.  In keeping with the President’s direction, we knew if we set the tone right during this first transition, DHS would likely establish a tradition of non-partisan, professional handoffs going forward.  Long story short, we had to draw on the transition experience from civil servants from older departments as well as from the Center for Presidential Transition (a national treasure!).  With the benefit of that newfound knowledge, I bent over backwards to show the incoming DHS Chief of Staff, Noah Kroloff, that we were super serious about giving them everything they needed to have a smooth start of their Administration.  Initially, Noah was understandably a little reserved at first.  After we had time to get to know one another and build some trust, we actually became friends.  (Side note: a terrorist plot also developed targeting the Obama Inauguration, which led President Obama to ask Secretary Chertoff and me to stay in our positions until the plot was disrupted.  We agreed and technically ended up serving into the Obama Administration… but that’s a whole other story.)  As an American, we can all be incredibly proud that in the history of our Democracy we have for over two centuries a sacred unbroken process of the peaceful transfer of power.  Thanks to President Bush’s clear leadership, DHS had a successful first transition.

Here comes another interesting part of the story.  In 2012, at the end of the first term of the Obama Administration, they didn’t know if they would have a second term.  Four years after I left DHS, Noah invited me back to join him on stage to speak to all the political appointees and civil servants who might have a role in a potential transition.  Noah concluded that event by very graciously saying that “while it is a hard bar to meet, the Obama Administration will continue the tradition of professionalism in peaceful transitions that the Bush Administration helped start.”  I wish every American citizen could have witnessed that gracious non-partisan moment extended to me by my Democratic friend.  By making that nonpartisan gesture, Noah drove home the bigger point that we are all Americans first and the peaceful transfer of power is an untouchable cornerstone of our beloved Democracy.

This bipartisan story of our Democracy didn’t end there.  Eight years later in 2020, Noah and I again came together to explore ways we could support our democracy.  We launched “Citizens for a Strong Democracy” or “CSD” with the help of four patriotic former Secretaries of Homeland Security: (Secretaries Ridge and Chertoff on the Republican side and Secretaries Janet Napolitano & Jeh Johnson on the Democratic side). Those inspiring leaders played an important bipartisan role in that election and eventual peaceful transfer of power.

Q: Can you leave us with any humorous or little-known anecdotes from your time in the Administration?

Here’s a funny one.  When DHS got formed, we needed a building.  I’m told the President asked DOD Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to provide a building for this new Department.  Secretary Rumsfeld apparently smiled and said, “Yes, Mr. President” and then proceeded to give DHS one of the oldest, dumpiest buildings DOD had – the Nebraska Avenue Complex or “The NAC.”   There were practically no places to get lunch within a reasonable walking distance, so your meal choices were relegated to a brown bag lunch or the only vendor we had inside the complex – Subway.  (To this day I suffer severe PTSD from just a whiff of one of their subs!)

The best cooks in the government tended to be with the Services who had members spending tours of duty on ships or submarines: the Navy, the Marines and the Coast Guard.  (There is a reason the Navy has cooked for the White House Mess since 1880.)  When I became Chief of Staff of DHS, I would often get asked by those sick of Subway sandwiches, “hey, why don’t we have an Executive Mess?”  I honestly didn’t know.  It seemed like with the great chefs of the Coast Guard, we should have not just an Executive Mess, but an “Excellent” Mess.   I started poking around and someone at the White House told me, “look, the Coast Guard Executive Mess is still at the Department of Transportation, but don’t expect it to move for a while.”  I curiously asked “but why?  The entire Coast Guard has moved already.”  I was then told only Andy Card and the President know why and that it certainly wasn’t a good idea for me to trouble them about such a mundane matter (although for those of us suffering under Subway-only diet, it felt like a VERY serious issue).  I dutifully decided it was best to “let sleeping dogs lie” and dropped any further investigation.

Several months later I finally got a call out of the blue from the Head of the Coast Guard Mess saying, “Sir, ready to report for duty.” It was like we had found the Holy Grail.  I couldn’t resist asking him: “Why now?”  He carefully uttered, “Sir, it’s above my pay grade.”  Only several months later I came to find out (from a source who shall remain nameless) that when the President decided to create DHS, Andy Card as Chief of Staff got assigned the “dirty” work of having to go to various Cabinet Secretaries and explain to them why chunks of their respective departments were going to be taken away from them.  Some of those “chunks” were prized gems within that respective department.  For example, the Secret Service had to be pulled out of Treasury; the Coast Guard had to be removed from Transportation, etc.  Supposedly there was quite a bit of Secretary-level moaning and groaning.  I was told that Andy was worried how Secretary Norm Mineta at Transportation was going to react when he heard the tough news about the Coast Guard needing to be extracted.  Apparently, much to Andy’s pleasant surprise, Secretary Mineta was a good soldier, saluted up and said “Understood.  Will do.  My only ask is that the Coast Guard Executive Mess stays until I go.”  Apparently, Andy said “done” and the rest is history.  Many years later at a DHS reunion I was able to explain to Secretary Mineta why I wanted to personally thank him for his decision to end his honorable public service to return to the private sector!  He laughed and said, “Ha!  Yes, the Coast Guard Mess is sooo good.  Now you know why I had to shamelessly ask.  It was one of the best deals I’ve ever negotiated in my entire career – including all my years on the Hill!”