Bush forced to start fresh search for security supremo

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The Independent US

The Bush administration begins the search today for a new homeland security chief after the ignominious withdrawal of former New York police chief Bernard Kerik, the latest victim of that time-honoured Washington pitfall, "Nannygate".

The Bush administration begins the search today for a new homeland security chief after the ignominious withdrawal of former New York police chief Bernard Kerik, the latest victim of that time-honoured Washington pitfall, "Nannygate".

As often with such embarrassments, the White House announced it was withdrawing his nomination as Secretary for Homeland Security late on Friday, at a time when news coverage would be minimal. Mr Kerik insisted yesterday he could still have been confirmed by the Senate, but said the process would have been "messy, ugly and an embarrassment to President Bush".

In fact, administration officials swiftly concluded, it would have been indefensible for the man in overall charge of immigration policy to have been caught out employing a domestic help who may have been in the US illegally, and for whom he did not pay proper taxes.

The entire episode is uncannily similar to mishaps that befell both Bill Clinton and George Bush at the start of his first administration. In 1993, Mr Clinton had to withdraw the nomination of Zoe Baird, his first choice for Attorney General, after she had employed an illegal immigrant as a nanny. Then, in 2001, Linda Chavez was forced to step down as Labour Secretary designate in the first Bush cabinet, in near-identical circumstances.

But other clouds had been gathering over Mr Kerik, quite apart from his admission that he too had not paid social security taxes on a nanny, who may not have been a legal immigrant. Democrats also made much of a potential conflict of interest arising from a $6.2m (£3.3m) windfall on stock options he had held in a stun gun company that does business with the federal government.

According to the latest issue of Newsweek, moreover, Mr Kerik also was involved in a civil dispute in 1998 after he did not pay maintenance fees on a New Jersey condominium he owned. At one point, a warrant for his arrest was issued, the magazine claimed.

Bush aides are confident the fuss will quickly subside, and aim to name a replacement before the Christmas holiday. But the fiasco has been a rare failure of a White House that takes great pride in its efficiency.

Officials place the blame on Mr Kerik, but accept his word that he simply forgot about the nanny episode when he underwent preliminary vetting.

The affair may also be a setback for Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York mayor who was a close friend and sponsor of Mr Kerik, and who is widely assumed to be eyeing a bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

Among the most widely mentioned candidates for the reopened position is Asa Hutchison, currently deputy to the outgoing homeland security secretary Tom Ridge. A dark horse is Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut senator and 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, who was a key Democratic sponsor of the legislation setting up the new department.

Whoever takes over will inherit an especially tough job. The Homeland Security Department, set up after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the biggest re-organisation of government in the US in half a century, was melded together from 22 existing agencies and departments, has a budget of $47bn and employs 180,000 people.

Mr Ridge is generally reckoned to have been efficient but in some ways ineffectual. Critics say the new arrangements have merely increased bureaucracy without making the country any safer. The department came in for derision when it advised households to stock up with duct tape and mineral water as a precaution against terrorist attacks, then introduced a system of colour-coded terror alerts that has created confusion.

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