Former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who is President Bush's nominee for secretary of homeland security, has the right background and tough-guy temperament for the job. Tom Ridge performed admirably in setting up the new department, but there are advantages to his successor having experience in law enforcement.
One unresolved concern during Ridge's tenure has been the department's uneven coordination with and support for first responders - the local fire, police and rescue units that would be on the front lines of any terrorist attack. These agencies often complain that they lack the timely information, training and equipment to respond to a large-scale biological or chemical attack.
If anybody understands the challenges and frustrations of first responders, it ought to be Kerik. He lived through the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 and lost 23 police officers that day. The New Jersey native will start his job with an essential grasp of where the antiterrorism resources are needed most. The question is how hard he will try to convince Bush that more needs to be done. The President has been largely satisfied with the overall level of homeland security spending.
One of Kerik's priorities must be to ensure a more equitable distribution of homeland security funding to the ports and large cities that are most vulnerable. Sparsely populated states such as Wyoming and Montana have ranked in the top 10 in per-citizen spending on homeland security, while New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania are in the bottom 10.
Beefing up cargo inspections in port cities must be high on Kerik's agenda, too. The nation's ports have the technology to screen for weapons in only about 5 percent of the containers that pass through them daily. That's a spotty record that leaves too many opportunities for terrorists to slip through a so-called radiological "dirty bomb" into the heart of our most densely populated regions.
In another critical area of homeland defense - chemical plant security - it's doubtful that Kerik, a political novice, will have any more success than Ridge. Faced with intense industry lobbying, the Bush administration has opposed legislation that would have forced the nuclear and chemical industries to improve security at their plants. That doesn't mean that supporters of tougher security at chemical plants, such as Sen. Jon Corzine (D., N.J.) should stop trying to win over Kerik.
Outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has raised another item on Kerik's "to-do" list, saying he worries "every single night" about a possible terror attack on the nation's food supply. The Food and Drug Administration yesterday issued new rules requiring food manufacturers to keep detailed records about the source and destination of food shipments. While that's good, it is aimed at finding culprits after the damage is done. It will be Kerik's job to evaluate the system's potential weaknesses with an eye toward preventing sabotage.