||December 15, 2004
Missteps Cited in Kerik Vetting by White
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
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This article was reported by Elisabeth Bumiller, Eric Lipton and David
Johnston and written by Ms. Bumiller.
WASHINGTON, Dec. 14 - Despite hours of confrontational interviews by the
White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, the Bush administration failed to
get a full picture of the legal and ethical problems of Bernard B. Kerik,
its nominee for homeland security secretary, a government official said on
In addition, the White House did not consult with the one person in the West
Wing who knew the most about Mr. Kerik's background, Frances Townsend,
because Ms. Townsend, President Bush's adviser on homeland security and a
former federal prosecutor in New York, was under consideration for the
position herself, said the official, who would speak only on condition of
anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Those problems, law enforcement officials and Republicans said, were just
two of the factors that led to the collapse of the Kerik nomination and
surprised a White House focused on changing more than half the cabinet.
The story of Mr. Kerik's nomination is one of how a normally careful White
House faltered because of Mr. Bush's personal enthusiasm for Mr. Kerik, a
desire by the administration to quickly fill a critical national security
job and an apparent lack of candor from Mr. Kerik himself.
A Republican close to the White House who has participated in background
reviews of presidential nominees said the fault lay both with Mr. Kerik and
with "whoever's job it was to check him out."
A major problem, law enforcement officials said, was that the White House
did not have the benefit of any F.B.I. investigation into Mr. Kerik's past.
Mr. Kerik, as New York City's police commissioner on Sept. 11, 2001, had
been offered a high security clearance by federal officials so he could
receive classified intelligence about the city's security, a law enforcement
official said. But he failed to return a questionnaire needed for the F.B.I.
to conduct a background check, and he never received that clearance, the law
enforcement official said.
Mr. Kerik said on Tuesday night through his spokesman, Christopher Rising,
that he could not remember receiving the questionnaire. Mr. Kerik still
received classified information from the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. regarding
security issues in New York, the law enforcement official said, although the
police commissioner was not given the most sensitive intelligence about the
sources of the data. He served as police commissioner through the end of
Mr. Kerik also failed to complete a required federal financial disclosure
form in May 2003, when he left the country to spend three and a half months
in Iraq trying to train Iraqi police officers, a law enforcement official
said. The disclosure form, law enforcement officials said, might have turned
up some of the financial problems that surfaced this month in connection
with a condominium he owned in New Jersey.
In addition, law enforcement officials said, Mr. Bush announced Mr. Kerik's
nomination before the F.B.I. had begun the full field investigation required
of all cabinet nominees. The officials said such an investigation would have
readily uncovered the problems that doomed Mr. Kerik's nomination. The
investigation was not done, administration officials said, because the Bush
White House has generally not conducted such checks, which take numerous
agents many weeks to complete, until after the president announces a
nominee. A former White House official who has conducted background checks
said that the Bush White House got into the habit during the abbreviated
transition in 2000, when there was little time for investigating nominees.
The Clinton administration also waited on F.B.I. background checks, which
caused a number of embarrassments. But the administrations of Ronald Reagan
and the President Bush's father, for the most part, waited until an F.B.I.
investigation was complete before the president announced a cabinet nominee.
White House officials said the counsel's office had conducted a
less-comprehensive investigation of Mr. Kerik over several weeks in
November, before the president announced his nomination, and that the White
House was well aware that he had problems in his past, including a warrant
for his arrest in connection with delinquent condominium fees.
Mr. Kerik was nominated by Mr. Bush on Dec. 3 but withdrew a week later,
citing problems with a nanny who may have been in the country illegally and
whose taxes he had not paid. Since then, Mr. Kerik has had to answer
questions about his connections to a New Jersey company suspected of having
ties to organized crime and his use of an apartment, donated as a resting
spot for police officers at ground zero, where he conducted an affair with
his book publisher, according to someone who discussed the relationship with
It is unclear exactly what the White House knew of Mr. Kerik's past. But
aides there concluded that Mr. Kerik would be regarded as a "colorful"
figure whose strong performance after the Sept. 11 attacks would propel him
into office, one official said.
Mr. Gonzales, who is himself in the middle of a background review as Mr.
Bush's nominee for attorney general, spent hours grilling Mr. Kerik, the
official said. As with other nominees, the sessions were aggressive and
designed to make Mr. Kerik uncomfortable enough to reveal possible
embarrassing events in his record. Even so, he apparently withheld some
pertinent facts. Mr. Gonzales declined to comment.
Throughout the process, the Republican close to the administration said,
everyone at the White House knew that Mr. Bush liked Mr. Kerik, placing him
in the special category of "this guy's our guy." Mr. Bush admired Mr. Kerik
for his service as New York City's police commissioner on Sept. 11, 2001,
for his willingness to try to train the police force in Iraq and for
campaigning tirelessly for the president's re-election.
As for problems in his past that might have derailed his nomination,
Republicans noted that former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was enthusiastically
vouching for Mr. Kerik. And no one could imagine that the life of a former
New York police chief was not already an open book.
Mr. Bush, who first met Mr. Kerik when the president went to the
still-smoking ruins of the World Trade Center on Sept. 14, 2001, lavished
praise on Mr. Kerik when the two stood side by side on the White House South
Lawn in October 2003. The president had just met in the Oval Office with Mr.
Kerik upon his return from Iraq.
Others criticized Mr. Kerik for seeming to focus more on seeking publicity
than on expanding training programs for new Iraqi police officers. "He was
terrific about inspiring people and creating a goal, but he was often not
very good about following up and getting it done," one former American
official who spent time in Baghdad said this month.
But Mr. Bush did not forget Mr. Kerik's time under fire, or his reflected
glow from New York's response to the attacks on the city. By the fall of
2004, Mr. Kerik had become one of the symbols of the Bush campaign's fight
against terrorism and traveled the nation spreading the message.
Christopher Drew contributed reporting from New York for this article.