War Stories

All Homeland Security Is Local

Which is why Bernard Kerik is the right choice to lead the department.

In picking former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik as the next secretary of Homeland Security, President Bush immediately prompted criticism that he had chosen a poor manager who lacked the political savvy to succeed in Washington, as well as yet another lackey who’ll be too subservient to be an effective Cabinet secretary. (Fred Kaplan makes these points, and others, here.)

But in truth, Kerik’s qualifications to run DHS exceed those of outgoing Secretary Tom Ridge, or those of other counterterrorism experts who have worked in the White House like Richard Clarke and Rand Beers. That’s because at its core, homeland security is a local business, not a federal one. Kerik understands this. Thanks to his career as a cop, he knows what police agencies and others on the front lines of homeland security really need from their federal government to do their jobs.

The secretary of Homeland Security wears two main hats. In his day job, he runs the third-largest federal agency, comprising 180,000 employees and what used to be 22 separate agencies ranging from the Coast Guard to the Secret Service. In this role, Kerik must learn to act as chief executive, something he did passably as New York City police commissioner, and poorly as Iraq’s interim interior minister.

It is the second job of the DHS chief that Kerik is prepared for: national homeland security czar. Under the DHS’s enabling statute, the secretary serves as the president’s chief adviser and the nation’s lead official on homeland security. DHS sets national policy on everything from the threat level (the infamous DHS color chart) to container inspections at U.S. ports and pushes programs at the state and local level, such as chemical and biological defense training for first responders.

Ridge floundered in this second job, both because it’s a mammoth task and because he didn’t comprehend the complex world of local homeland security. Ridge dealt little with these matters as Pennsylvania governor and even then only at an abstract level. But Kerik will enter the job with a rich understanding of this environment. After all, Kerik was the guy who supervised the New York Police Department on Sept. 11. He viscerally appreciates what it’s like to send men into harm’s way without the communications equipment or interagency relationships they need to be effective. He had to attend funeral after funeral afterward. Kerik also knows the myriad details of homeland security at a local level, such as the need to work with public health agencies whose surveillance systems will detect the first signs of a biological attack, or the role that prison inmates can play in providing intelligence about the street. Most of all, Kerik knows that the most likely person to stop or encounter a terrorist attack is not an FBI agent or CIA analyst, but a cop walking the beat or a transit worker who sees something suspicious. If Kerik remains true to his background, he will direct the lion’s share of resources and federal attention toward these local officials on the front lines of homeland security.

One of the biggest problems in homeland security now is the gap between federal capabilities and the state capacity to utilize them. The best example is intelligence: The CIA and other agencies produce volumes of homeland security-related intelligence, but there continues to be no effective system for distributing that information to local homeland security officials. The USA Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act of 2002 provide the legal basis for this information to be shared, but the federal government has yet to make it happen. Again, Kerik’s background makes him the right guy to push this through because he knows what it’s like to be a local cop in desperate need of information about a sophisticated international threat like al-Qaida.

Perhaps most importantly, Kerik will also know when to step back and defer to local officials. After the Sept. 11 attacks, New York City was deluged by federal agencies seeking to help. Yet the fundamental tasks remained local in nature—securing the site, treating the wounded, gathering evidence, assessing public health concerns, etc. The best role for the federal government to play in homeland security is a supporting one, arriving only when its resources or expertise are necessary. (During the 2001 anthrax attacks, for example, only the military and a few select agencies knew how to deal with the spores.)

The best thing Kerik can do now, assuming he’s confirmed by the Senate, is tap a strong deputy to fill in the management and political gaps in his résumé. (Current DHS Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, an experienced Washington insider and public administrator, would make a good pick.) Republicans have long championed the idea of federalism, of letting as much power as possible remain with state and local authorities. With Kerik, Bush has chosen a secretary of Homeland Security who might be able to turn that principle into practice.