WASHINGTON—In an emergency press conference held this morning, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urged the American public to be on the lookout for a folder that was misplaced sometime in the last 24 hours, most likely in the DHS offices, but also possibly anywhere else.

Chertoff looks in vain through the cabinet where the Department of Homeland Security keeps all its bills.

The last known location of the folder, described as a blue hanging-type folder with the DHS logo on the front, was in the hands of Assistant Secretary of the Office of Intergovernmental Programs Anne P. Petera during a classified meeting with President Bush and the Joint Chiefs of Staff yesterday. It reportedly contains a number of documents and satellite images that would be of no interest whatsoever to anyone if they found it.

"I can assure all Americans that the assistant secretary could have sworn she had it with her when she went through the metal detector," Chertoff said. "According to the latest information, she set it down for only a second right before the briefing, and now it is gone. Officials have diligently checked everywhere from the bathroom, to the top of the refrigerator in the breakroom, to the underground emergency command bunker we were touring this morning with representatives from the Centers for Disease Control, but apparently it has simply disappeared."

Added Chertoff, "It has got to be around here somewhere, so please, if you see a blue folder, say something."

While Chertoff would not comment on the nature of the lost documents, he did specify that there were approximately 45 pages of white 8 1/2 x 11" recycled paper, half of which were three-hole punched, and half bound with staples and stamped "Top Secret."

Though he maintained that the folder itself was not of the utmost importance, Chertoff claimed the contents within had "sentimental value" to the DHS. He insisted that any person or persons who came upon the folder would not be interested in any of the documents anyway, since most are encoded with the U.S. military's most advanced encryption technology.

Chertoff also asked citizens to be on the lookout for the DHS' encryption key, which went missing last October.

"There is absolutely no reason for concern," Chertoff said. "It's just that the folder was supposed to be on Sheila's desk by the end of the day today, and it would be reassuring if it were returned. But I stress that this is not a particularly urgent matter because, again, it's not absolutely essential to national security. However, if we could get it back by 3 p.m. on Feb. 27, that would be for the best for all of us."

Aides distributed a sketch of the folder to reporters while Chertoff explained that all field agents under the department's jurisdiction have been recalled to Washington to initiate a full sweep for the folder, which, according to Chertoff, could actually be yellow, come to think of it. He also outlined tactics that the DHS has taken thus far to recover the folder, including retracing their steps all the way back to a local Starbucks, going through the office trash bin, waterboarding several members of the DHS cleaning staff, and looking in the same desk drawer 10 times.

This new revelation is particularly embarrassing for the DHS, given last month's news that Chertoff lost the phone number of a terrorist informant that he had jotted down on a coaster.

Critics who have repeatedly taken the department to task for such lapses have also been vocal about the latest incident.

"In November, Assistant Secretary of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Julie L. Meyers left some sensitive documents on the bus, and acting Deputy Chief of Staff Paul Schneider locked himself out of his office no fewer than five times in the past year," said Bob Edgar of the watchdog group Common Cause. "We demand that the DHS take drastic steps to change the way it protects our homeland, such as coming up with rhyming mnemonic devices or even taping Post-It notes to their clothes."

Chertoff assured reporters that he was not accusing anyone in particular of stealing the folder, and said he would leave his office door open so it could be put back on his desk while no one was looking.

"It is of the utmost importance that you go about your daily routine as if nothing vital to the country's very sovereignty has fallen into the hands of hostile forces hell-bent on destroying the United States," Chertoff said. "Hopefully, the folder will turn up soon."

The press conference concluded with Chertoff raising the National Threat Advisory to red, thereby placing the country under martial law until the folder is returned.