Sunday, December 19, 2004

Beyond Bernard Kerik

The New York Times
December 19, 2004

Beyond Bernard Kerik

Now that Bernard Kerik has been relegated to a footnote in the history of Homeland Security, the Bush administration must come up with a new choice to head the department. If there is any upside to Mr. Kerik's train wreck of a nomination it is that his career, as it emerged in press reports in the days after his nomination, provides a checklist of many of the qualities the next secretary should not have. The next nominee will clearly be better vetted, but he or she should also be a person of unquestioned competence, integrity and independence.

When Mr. Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner, was suggested for the job, the aura of Sept. 11 heroics that surrounded him seems to have been so blinding that the White House failed to notice the many aspects of his background that made him spectacularly unsuitable. His ties to questionable companies, his possible misuse of his authority to favor friends and allies, his willingness to politicize homeland security during the presidential campaign, and the serious doubts about his security work in Iraq last year should all have raised his personal alert level to red.

As the Bush administration searches for a new nominee, it should emphasize many of the things that were missing from, or in short supply in, Mr. Kerik's background - notably a demonstrated record of ability in national security. And given the difficult funding and turf battles that are built into the job, experience in dealing with Congress and the Washington bureaucracy is an important, if not necessary, qualification.

It has often appeared that the Homeland Security Department was being used to score political points; during the election campaign, terror alerts seemed to be issued at unusually opportune moments. The next nominee should be someone who is not strongly identified with partisan politics, or at least shows a clear inclination to rise above them. There have been reports that the White House has tried to entice a Democratic senator to take the job. Reaching across the partisan divide is a fine idea, but one big reason for choosing a Democratic senator would be to increase the Republican Senate majority by one. That sort of political calculation has no place in filling a position with as sober a mandate as this one.

One of the most troubling aspects of Mr. Kerik's nomination was his web of connections to companies in the homeland security business, including his consulting partnership, Giuliani-Kerik L.L.C., and his relationship with Taser International, the stun-gun maker on whose board he has served. The new secretary should be someone whose highest loyalty is to the defense of the American people.

In recent weeks, President Bush has appointed members of his inner circle to cabinet positions, giving the appearance that he wants departments headed by yes men and women. It would be a mistake to do this with Homeland Security.