War Stories

Questions for Kerik

Is he qualified to run the Department of Homeland Security?

When Bernard Kerik, President Bush’s choice to be the new homeland security secretary, testifies at his Senate confirmation hearings next month, someone should ask him the following questions:

  • What did you do to combat terrorism, either as New York City police commissioner or as a partner at Giuliani Associates (his former boss’s consulting firm)?
  • What did you accomplish as Iraq’s interim interior minister in the summer of 2003, and why did you leave that job two and a half months earlier than you’d planned?
  • What in your experience qualifies you to run the largest federal department created in the last half-century?

Let’s start addressing some of these matters now.

A good man is hard to find. Keep looking.

The quick answer to the first question: not much. Kerik became commissioner not by rising through the ranks of the NYPD but through his loyalty to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. This is worth noting since, according to today’s Washington Post, Kerik got his new job only after Giuliani “made an impassioned personal plea” to President Bush on his behalf. Today’s New York Daily News quotes a “White House source” as saying, “Rudy cashed in a chip on this one.”

Specifically, Kerik started his rise to power as a veteran street cop tasked to be Giuliani’s driver and bodyguard during the 1993 mayoral election. The two became friends. Giuliani made him commissioner of the Corrections Department—where, it must be said, Kerik did a bang-up job, reducing gang violence at Riker’s Island by 90 percent. He then became deputy commissioner of the NYPD and, finally, the commish.

He was the city’s top cop for the last 16 months of Giuliani’s tenure. For the first 13 of those months, terrorism wasn’t much of an issue. Kerik’s three main priorities, as he laid out in a talk at the Manhattan Institute in March 2001, were reducing crime (which had been plunging for eight years already), boosting police morale (which had recently been damaged by rancorous labor negotiations), and “improving community relations” (a euphemism for “saying hello to black people once in a while,” which Giuliani had barely done since his first year as mayor).

Kerik did well in all three areas. But they had nothing to do with countering terrorism—an issue that Giuliani preferred to manage himself (with much enthusiasm, but mixed results, as when, for instance, he decided to put his multimillion-dollar anti-terror command headquarters on the 23rd floor of the World Trade Center).

Not to denigrate Kerik’s job performance, but he spent much of his own term writing an autobiography (which became a best seller). He used active-duty police officers to help with research on the book, a violation of policy for which the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board fined Kerik $2,500. And when someone stole his publisher’s cell phone and necklace, he assigned some homicide detectives to the case—a move that caused some outrage in the ranks.

Giuliani stepped down as mayor just three and a half months after the 9/11 attacks, because of term-limit laws. When he left office, Kerik went with him and joined his consulting agency—where, reports suggest, he spent most of his time giving speeches.

The point here is that Kerik was no longer in office when the NYPD started mounting its intensive effort toward preventing and fighting terrorism. That campaign was jump-started by Raymond Kelly, the commissioner named by Giuliani’s successor, Mike Bloomberg. If President Bush had wanted to hire a city cop with broad and deep experience at homeland security, Kelly would have been his man—but, alas, Kelly has worked for too many Democrats. He was police commissioner in David Dinkins’ final year as mayor (when, most people forget, crime started to creep down). He was undersecretary of treasury, in charge of border security, under President Clinton. In his first two days on the job under Bloomberg, he set up a counterterrorism division; hired David Cohen, a 35-year CIA veteran, to run the shop; and lavished the operation with piles of department money.

The second question—Kerik’s time in Baghdad—is a more mysterious matter, but from what’s known about it, still more dismaying. In mid-May 2003, the Defense Department gave Kerik a $140,000-a-year contract to go train the new Iraqi police force. He told reporters, “I will be there at least six months—until the job is done.” He came back to New York in early September, a little more than three months later, just as the insurgency began to grow, saying, “Everything that had to be done that I could possibly do, it was done.”

Whatever Kerik did, it wasn’t much. The Iraqi police forces were—and still are—notoriously ill-trained and ill-equipped for the gigantic challenges they face. It’s not clear why Kerik left earlier than scheduled. By all accounts, he was a wash-out. One Pentagon official who was in Baghdad at the time calls Kerik’s tenure “notably unspectacular.” His tenure did produce some grist for scandal. Members of Iraq’s interim governing council expressed loud dismay that Kerik spent $1.2 billion to train 35,000 Iraqi police in Jordan. More annoying still was his decision to buy from Jordan 20,000 Kalashnikov rifles, 50,000 revolvers, and 10 million rounds of ammunition, when he could have rounded up all those weapons far more cheaply—if not for free—from the disbanded Iraqi army.

Finally, as for Kerik’s ability to run a bureaucratic monstrosity that consists of 22 federal agencies, again, there’s not much there there. One thing can be said for Kerik: He is, at heart, a big-city cop. In other words, he appreciates that homeland security is principally an urban phenomenon; therefore, he might try to reshape the counterterrorism funding formula that currently gives Montana more federal dollars per capita than it gives New York. Kerik has also been on the receiving end of the FBI’s tendency not to share information with state and local law enforcement. When he was New York police commissioner, Kerik was properly appalled that the FBI told him nothing about the anthrax scare, nothing about a smattering of dirty-bomb scares, and—though neither he nor Giuliani have said so publicly, out of loyalty to Bush—he must have been especially appalled that no one told him or his boss about the famous Aug. 6 President’s Intelligence Brief that mentioned possible impending terrorist strikes in New York City.

In short, he comes to the job with a predisposition to improving relations between Washington and the cities and states. If he focuses on that—and leaves other managerial matters to qualified deputies—he might make a good go at it.

Otherwise, Kerik has little background in management and no experience in dealing with Washington or with any government entity larger, or less simpatico, than Rudy Giuliani’s City Hall. Despite his résumé, he comes to this job not as a professional expert but as a political operator. He owes his career to Giuliani, who just purchased Ernst & Young’s financial-services division, which may develop some monetary interest in companies dealing with homeland security. He campaigned vigorously for President Bush in the 2004 election, an activity that entailed bashing Sen. John Kerry as “clueless” on terrorism and getting a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.

In short, the senators at Kerik’s confirmation hearings should ask him why they should expect the Department of Homeland Security under his command to be any more credible—to be perceived as any less of a White House shill—than it was under Thomas Ridge.