NEW YORK — Bernard Kerik is the only cabinet secretary-designate whose life story has already been optioned by a major movie studio.
The son of a New Jersey prostitute who was murdered when he was a boy, Kerik is a high school dropout, a karate black belt, and a former security guard for the Saudi Royal family. His rise from ghetto streets to become a trusted presidential adviser is marked by discipline, determination, and a fierce loyalty to the men who put their trust in him, from former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to President Bush. He'll need all of those resources when, pending Senate confirmation, the former New York City police commissioner takes the helm of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security.
Cobbled together from 22 different agencies in the wake of 9/11, Homeland Security has more than 180,000 employees responsible for protecting everything from the Hoover Dam to a small chemical plant in New Jersey to the nation's coasts. Kerik's background will help, though it can hardly ensure success in a job that blends the challenges of Washington turf wars with street-level operations.
While outgoing Secretary Tom Ridge had the challenge of flying "the airplane at the same time he was building it," in the words of one expert, he was criticized as an ineffective champion for the new agency in Washington's gladiator-like bureaucratic battles. Some Homeland Security experts contend that Kerik, as a street-wise, no-nonsense leader, may be exactly what the agency needs as it matures from a still-confusing start-up into an effective catalyst for the nation's civil defense.
"Between Ridge and Kerik, you've gone from the charming, good-looking big man on campus to Rambo," says Juliette Kayyem, executive director of the National Security Program at the Kennedy School of Government. "Kerik's also a first responder, which is good because it means he'll be much more sympathetic to their needs. But there's a big question about whether he has the management skills that are needed to run such a huge department."
When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created, the Washington establishment extended lots of good will to Ridge and his then-small handful of aides.
But as the mammoth agency began to take shape, so did serious infighting. The scuttlebutt was that some agencies sent their "B-teams" over to DHS, undermining its credibility. Then, in a city where proximity is a symbol of power, the department was moved from its initial perch by the White House to Washington's far reaches on Nebraska Avenue to accommodate its rapid growth. Confusion reigned over who had authority on a variety of issues.
Priorities were set, changed, and set again. In the 2-1/2 short years DHS has existed, Ridge developed eight different security strategies. And then there was the color-coded alert system, which quickly became the butt of late night jokes.
To some extent, such confusion is to be expected given the complexity of pulling together an entirely new bureaucracy, particularly one whose authority reaches far beyond Washington to the private sector and local police and fire departments. Many credit Ridge for making "major progress" in a very short period of time. "He was a sturdy leader at the helm in a very stormy time, but obviously it's got a long way to go," says Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington. "The challenge now is to come up with hard-nosed, cold-eyed priorities."
Those priorities range from developing civil defense plans - which involves reaching out to the private sector that controls such critical areas as electric and chemical plants - to ensuring that the nation's 20 biggest cities finally have communications equipment that is compatible between their police and fire departments. Ms. Kayyem insists there's "no good reason" that hasn't been done yet. Kerik must also continue to improve intelligence and information sharing. The challenge is to make the sharing go two ways: up from local law enforcement and down from federal intelligence agencies, particularly since the terrorist threat is amorphous and ever changing.
Indeed, intelligence experts are fond of noting that every hole in security that gets plugged can create new opportunities for the terrorists. So new intelligence is crucial in keeping an eye on the shifting threat. Then there's another inherent problem: DHS has responsibilities for many issues like bioterrorism for which other departments, from Defense to Health and Human Services, have the ultimate authority.
"There's all of this inter-agency coordination, having everyone play off the same sheet of music, that must be done," says Michael Wermuth, director of homeland security at the RAND Corp. "So the responsibilities that this secretary has are going to be far more challenging and complicated than for most cabinet secretaries who only have to focus on one thing."
All of that has to be finessed, at the same time Kerik takes on a congressional oversight morass. Currently, 88 committees have some authority over DHS. Mr. Cilluffo describes this as "preposterous. Having 88 boards of directors is a tough way to run a business." So the question remains open: Can the tough street kid turned top administrator transform what some have termed a department with a "crisis of confidence" into a symbol of effective deterrence and defense?
"To some extent Ridge had the easy job, which is that he was able to break the initial ground on all of this stuff, whether it was setting up the color code or the framework for 22 different agencies working together," says Ron Marks, a national security expert. "[Kerik] has the tougher job, which is governing and trying to set up some form of infrastructure and some form of coherence across bureaucratic boundaries. That's as tough a job as anyone is going to have."