Now that Bernard Kerik has slithered back under his rock (and the sponsors of his ascension have done all they can to pretend they never really knew the guy), it is time to start reconsidering: Who, or what sort of person, should be the next secretary of homeland security?
It was probably a bad idea to create this Cabinet post in the first place. The notion stemmed from desperation (the clinging impulse to do something after 9/11) and took hold as a game of one-upmanship. (The Democrats, led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, proposed the new department to show that they were the real leaders in the war on terrorism—then President Bush, who initially opposed the idea, snatched their advantage and adopted it as his own.)
And so here we are entrusting one Cabinet secretary with the hapless task of managing a hydra-headed crossbreed of 22 federal agencies having a combined budget of $40 billion and a payroll of 183,000 employees. True, the Department of Defense—which was established in 1947 to unify the Army, Navy, and Air Force—is a vaster enterprise, but its component parts were always engaged in the same activity: building weapons, devising tactics and strategies, fighting wars. The Department of Homeland Security slaps together entities as disparate as the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and the Livermore National Laboratory. But the deed is done, the logo is carved in marble, and it’s all but inconceivable that Bush or any subsequent president would reverse the merger.
The key thing to do, while dreaming up a successor to the second-rate Tom Ridge and a substitute for the 10th-rate Bernie Kerik, is to focus on that word—merger. That’s what the Department of Homeland Security, fundamentally, amounts to: a gigantic merger and acquisition.
Look at the DHS organizational chart. For a head-spinner, look at the organizational chart for just the Science and Technology subdivision of DHS. Ask yourself: Who’s better equipped to navigate this nightmare: a) the governor of a state that can’t even seem to extract adequate funding for its share of the federal highway system; b) a big-city police commissioner whose main legacy was to display new heights of fealty toward a domineering mayor; or c) some hotshot lawyer, accountant, or chief executive from the world of corporate M & As? The question answers itself.
Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania, has been a lackluster secretary at best. Late last month, in a remarkable scoop (that, to my knowledge, no other paper has picked up), USA Today printed an interview with the Department of Homeland Security’s recently dismissed inspector general—an apparently hard-nosed watchdog with the unlikely name of Clark Kent Ervin—who described the DHS as “chaotic and disorganized.” Airports are not as secure as they could be. Little has been done to protect other forms of transportation. Ports are vulnerable. Immigration and customs inspectors are hampered in their efforts to track down illegal aliens because they lack gas money for cars. Money is wasted on lavish social events and executive bonuses. Contracts are awarded without competitive bidding.
Had Ridge’s replacement been Bernie Kerik—the last New York police commissioner under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (and one of Giuliani’s business partners until last month’s press exposés compelled his resignation)—the mire would no doubt have thickened. Kerik was a horrible choice to run the Department of Homeland Security, and not just because he was a sleazy finagler who took gifts from a mobster, assigned detectives to do research on his autobiography, ran a slush fund while he was in charge of the city’s jails, washed out in a brief spell as interim interior minister of Iraq (and came home three months ahead of schedule), cheated on his wife and his mistress, and, a few years before all this, declared bankruptcy and (on a separate occasion) received an arrest warrant for failure to pay fees on his condo. Had Kerik been a paragon of probity, he still would have been a lousy pick because he was a high-school dropout who had never managed a large, complex organization. (Yes, the NYPD is large, with 40,000 police officers, but Kerik was never touted, even by his defenders at the time, for managerial prowess.)
The fact that Bush nominated Kerik—he reportedly liked Kerik’s tough-talking, street-savvy, crime-fighting-bulldog “character”—is a dismaying sign that the president doesn’t understand the nature of the job. A mug who seems to have stepped out of a Damon Runyon story is not well-suited to be secretary of homeland security. Nor, for that matter, would a more buttoned-down law-enforcement strategist—say, Giuliani’s first police commissioner, Bill Bratton, or New York’s current top cop, Ray Kelly—be an ideal candidate.
The only way the DHS can be properly managed is to treat it not as a single department, but as the scattershot of agencies that it inherently is, coordinated by a superb manager. The department has five functional undersecretaries, and these should be filled not by political hacks but by prominent specialists in their field. Bratton or Kelly (or Kerik, if he had been the man Bush thought he was) might make a terrific undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response. Someone like James Kallstrom, the former FBI assistant director and well-known counterterrorism consultant, would be an able undersecretary for border and transportation security. Rand Beers, a veteran counterterrorism specialist in the National Security Council, could be undersecretary for information analysis and infrastructure protection. (The fact that Beers resigned in protest during Bush’s first term and went to work as a top adviser in John Kerry’s presidential campaign might be an obstacle here.) Any number of scientists or engineers would make excellent undersecretaries of science and technology. Even more accountants could serve as fine undersecretaries of management.
The secretary of homeland security would be the CEO who chairs the meetings of undersecretaries, hears their counsel, reads their reports, sets budget priorities, removes redundancies, and coordinates policy with the president. Since the secretary is also the public face of homeland security—appearing on television and before Congress, discussing threats and issuing warnings—he or she should also be a figure of utmost competence, probity, and credibility. Dullness need not be a disqualifying trait.
I am not a business columnist, and I don’t follow the corporate world closely enough to propose any particular person for the job. Readers: Do you have a candidate? Send your suggestions to email@example.com.