The son of a prostitute who was “tortured, beaten, brutalized and used,” abandoned by his father when he was 2 years old, raised by a violent stepfather with a criminal past, Bernard Kerik began stealing and dropped out of high school.
Such was the upbringing of the secretary-designate for homeland security as he himself described it in his book “The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice.”
What saved Mr. Kerik from a life of crime was a passion for the martial arts — a black belt at 18 — and Army life, first as a military policeman in Korea, later with the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he trained Special Forces personnel. But it didn’t take him long to figure out where he could use his new skills for real money — security assignments for the House of Saud, the Saudi royal family.
Back in the United States with his Saudi-earned nest egg, he moved quickly up the rungs of the law enforcement ladder, first as a training officer for the Passaic County Sheriff’s office, then as commander of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, and commander of its Special Weapons and Operations units, and finally warden of the Passaic County jail. He took a 50 percent pay cut to join New York’s finest.
In the New York City Police Department, Mr. Kerik did undercover work for anticrime and narcotics units where his fearless performance earned him the sobriquet “Mayhem Magnet.” He grew his hair down to the middle of his back, sported a big goatee and six diamond studs in one ear “with a gold loop at the bottom.”
In his book, Mr. Kerik says, “I sort of looked like Charles Manson. My buy areas were Harlem, Spanish Harlem and Washington Heights, and it was probably one of the hardest and roughest jobs I’ve ever had. We seized more drugs, more cocaine than any cops in the history of the NYPD over a 2?year period — about 10 tons of cocaine and about $60 million in cash.”
This record led to his selection for the U.S. Justice Department’s New York Drug Enforcement Task Force. It was in this job he directed a major investigation that led to the conviction of some 60 members of Colombia’s Cali cartel.
In 1991, Mr. Kerik went to work in one of the worst prisons in the country — Rikers Island in New York. “It was the most violent, the most overcrowded, the dirtiest … the conditions were so horrible inmates were stabbing and cutting each other [at the rate] of 150 each month.”
Mr. Kerik was decorated by NYPD on 30 different occasions for meritorious and heroic service, including the highest Medal of Honor. “He was as tough and as smart as they come,” said a former colleague now with a multinational corporation, “and he made plenty of enemies in his climb to fame.”
The ambitious Mr. Kerik knew he would need a powerful political figure to take him all the way to the top. The man he chose was Rudolph W. Giuliani when he made his first unsuccessful bid for mayor. Mr. Kerik volunteered to do bodyguard duty on his own time. And when Mr. Giuliani finally won, he made Mr. Kerik a detective on special detail to the mayor.
At the end of 1997, Mr. Giuliani appointed him to the newly formed New York City Gambling Control Commission. Mr. Kerik moved swiftly to the rank of deputy commissioner of the Corrections Department before becoming its commissioner.
New York City’s most historic jail — known as The Tombs — was renamed “The Bernard B. Kerik Complex” a year after Mr. Giuliani appointed him NYPD’s 40th chief in August 2000.
As New York City’s police chief, Mr. Kerik commanded 30,000 uniformed police, 14,000 civilians, and a $3.2 billion budget.
Mr. Giuliani was not interested in the DHS Cabinet position as he is now busy making money with a thriving consultancy business. But he did inform President Bush he thought Mr. Kerik was the best possible candidate to replace DHS Secretary Tom Ridge. And where was Mr. Kerik now? Senior Vice President of Giuliani Partners and chief executive officer of Giuliani-Kerik LLC, an affiliate of Giuliani Partners.
Mr. Bush owed Mr. Giuliani a couple of favors for his unstinting support during the presidential campaign. Mr. Kerik had also warmly endorsed a second term for the president. He had also agreed to serve in Iraq for six months to supervise the training of Iraqi police recruits. He served three months before coming home to campaign for Mr. Bush.
Mr. Kerik, if confirmed, will command 22 government agencies, almost 200,000 employees (up from the original 180,000), and a budget of $40 billion.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.