" I don't really trust this guy, he has a lean and hungry look !"

No time to waste
Chertoff, who has set aside some environmental restrictions to speed fence construction, said he didn't want to "get enmeshed in endless litigation" with environmentalists who he said opposed fencing, lighting and other improvements along the border that would help the Border Patrol seize undocumented immigrants, smugglers and drug traffickers.

"I've gone to too many memorial services where agents were killed in rollover accidents pursuing smugglers because there wasn't an all-weather road," Chertoff said. "I have to tell you in all honesty as between the sensitivity of an owl and having to look a family in the eye and say, 'I'm sorry you lost a loved one because we can't build a road.' I'm going with protecting the family and protecting the Border Patrol agent."

The Border Patrol lists eight officers who have died in the line of duty since Chertoff took office in 2005. Wayne Bartholomew, executive director with Frontera Audubon, a nonprofit conservation organization in Lower Rio Grande Valley, called Chertoff's comments "disingenuous, false and misleading."

Bartholomew said the federal government had short-cut the environmental review process with the border fence project, failing to fully consider the potential impact on other public safety issues, including air and water pollution.

"This isn't about building an all-weather road," Bartholomew said. "It's about following a process, and that process includes over 100 years of laws established by the United States Congress. He has put communities at risk by waiving these laws and unilaterally charging ahead without any oversight at all."

Chertoff has been battling resistance along the Texas border to the planned barriers, including a recent federal lawsuit by the Texas Border Coalition that includes leaders from 10 Texas border communities from Brownsville to El Paso.

Chertoff, a former federal appeals court judge known for a no-nonsense style, said he remained willing to consult with critics but would not surrender the authority awarded him by the Republican-led Congress in 2005 to override environmental objections.