Speaking at a tightly guarded ceremony attended by several hundred people, Chertoff said the Bertholf is "a magnificent cutter" and "a technological marvel."
U.S. Rep Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, chair of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, said the 418-foot-long cutter "will be the most capable vessel the Coast Guard has ever sailed."
The Bertholf is the first in the new "Legend class" of carriers, which Coast Guard officials say are larger, faster and better-armed than current carriers.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen told reporters after the ceremony that he's delighted the Bertholf is now in service because it represents "a quantum leap in capability" for the Coast Guard's fleet as well as an improvement in the quality of life for crew members.
Allen, who attended De Anza High School in El Sobrante, said the Bertholf's range is "unrestricted" and possible assignments include the Middle East, the Bering Straits and the coast of South America.
Allen said the Bertholf and the seven other cutters that will follow in its footsteps are designed to operate with U.S. Navy ships and handle traditional Coast Guard tasks, particularly intercepting sea-going drug dealers and terrorists.
Rescue missions are among the cutter's other duties, he said.
Allen said, "The amount of surveillance it provides is extraordinary."
Chertoff told reporters, "It's a great day" because the Bertholf is the first new cutter the Coast Guard has had in 36 years.
He called the Bertholf "a terrific addition to the Coast Guard" and "a down payment on the new series of cutters."
Chertoff said the cutter will help the Coast Guard "perform its core mission of security the country."
Cummings said the Bertholf cost about $649 million, an amount he said was "a lot more than was anticipated."
Cummings said the commissioning of the Bertholf is "a major step in the right direction" but he wants to make sure that "American taxpayers are getting a good bang for their buck" and he hopes that the cost of future cutters can be reduced to about $330 million.
The Bertholf was built by the defense company Northrup Grumman in Pascagoula, Miss.
The cutter, which will be based at Coast Guard Island in Alameda, recently completed its initial journey of 5,000 nautical miles from Mississippi to California, passing through the Panama Canal along the way.
Coast Guard officials said the Bertholf's crew conducted small boat and helicopter operations as well as live-fire exercises of all the ship's weapons systems.
Allen said the Bertholf's crew is excited about the new cutter and called today's commissioning ceremony "like the opening day of football season."
Allen said the Bertholf can travel for 12,000 miles and more than 60 days at a time.
He joked, "It gets good mileage."