Former N.Y. police commissioner is choice for Homeland Security

Danforth to resign as U.N. ambassador

December 03, 2004|By David L. Greene, Laura Sullivan and Mark Matthews | David L. Greene, Laura Sullivan and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush has picked former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik to serve as Homeland Security secretary, tapping a seasoned cop who played a key role in his city's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Kerik's nomination was confirmed by senior administration officials last night, capping a busy day of staff changes in the top tier of the Bush administration.

Earlier, Bush nominated Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns to be agriculture secretary, and United Nations Ambassador John C. Danforth submitted his resignation.

While shakeups typically precede a president's second term, Bush is seeing - or in some cases ordering - more changes than have most modern presidents. But the changes don't appear to signal a major course adjustment.

Seven of the 15 members of Bush's Cabinet have announced their resignations. At least two more are expected: Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow.

One administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush would formally announce Kerik's nomination today. The official described Kerik as "a proven crisis manager with credibility and a first-hand understanding of the war on terror. He was at Ground Zero within moments of the horrific attacks and coordinated the rescue, recovery and investigatory efforts."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, applauded the choice, saying Kerik "knows the great needs and challenges this country faces in homeland security" and would "do an excellent job."

But others expressed reservations. Paul Light, a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service who has studied the Department of Homeland Security since its creation by Congress last year, said Kerik "will be reassuring to law enforcement people but will have to take a crash course in Washington politics."

"He's in for a rude awakening," Light said. "Washington makes New York's police department seem like the simplest organization on Earth. The Homeland Security Department is the subject of intense political debates, and the budget process is intense and divisive."

Kerik was at the helm of New York's police department in some of its most difficult days, in the wake of the 9/11 attack that killed 23 officers. A former military police officer in South Korea, Kerik came to New York as a beat cop in 1986. After leaving the department last year, he went to Iraq to help train security personnel and establish a police department in Baghdad.

If confirmed by the Senate, Kerik would replace Tom Ridge, who resigned this week. He would take the reins of a department that still remains a loosely tied collection of 22 agencies and parts of agencies.

Ridge won praise for getting the massive bureaucracy up and running, but he struggled with bureaucratic turf fights and battles among dozens of congressional committees and subcommittees that oversee the department. He also faced criticism that the White House was using warnings of terrorism for political gain, and he walked a fine line between making grave announcements about possible terror threats and trying to calm Americans' fears.

Kerik's critics say he had only moderate success training Iraqi police; they point to civil rights problems in the New York police department and a few ethical lapses during his time as commissioner, such as when he used staff to help research a book he was writing.

His book, The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice, reveals that Kerik was abandoned by his mother, a prostitute, when he was 4 years old. The book's jacket paints this picture: "From the sagging row houses of Paterson, New Jersey, to the cocaine fields of Colombia, from the razor wire of Rikers Island to the streets of New York City, Bernard Kerik has dedicated his life to a single goal: to fight the injustice he sees around him.

"A jail warden with a black belt and a background in international security and anti-terrorism, he took a substantial pay cut to become a beat cop on the streets of Times Square in 1986. A fearless narcotics detective, he went undercover to buy drugs in Harlem, seized millions of dollars of cocaine from the drug lords of the Cali cartel, and was awarded the Police Department's Medal of Valor for saving the life of a fellow officer."

Kerik had only moderate success training the Iraqi police forces in Baghdad, a job he undertook after leaving New York.

But while critics call Kerik brusque and egotistical, his defenders praise him as blunt and candid. His supporters say he has no patience for incompetence or laziness.

University of Maryland law professor Michael Greenberger, who was an official in the Clinton Justice Department, predicted Kerik would help smooth the often-rocky relations between the department and local first responders who have felt neglected.

"Kerik was working on problems and issues of terrorism and funding before the 9/11 attacks," Greenberger said. "He understands the fire chiefs and police chiefs feel shortchanged."

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