Ray Kelly at an awards banquet for employees of New York's MTA. Photo via Flickr user MTAPhotos
On Friday, Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who’s been in the Senate for 15 years and in Congress for 32, recommended the appointment of Ray Kelly, the longest-serving police commissioner in New York City history, to take over the US Department of Homeland Security after the just-resigned Janet Napolitano leaves. Pretty much immediately a chorus went up praising the idea of NYC’s top cop taking the reins of the country’s most dystopian-sounding agency. “Kelly should have been Obama’s pick the first time around—a confidence-inspiring law-enforcement leader with federal experience,” wrote John Avlon in the Daily Beast, a sentiment that’s been more or less echoed by a host of prominent officials. “He’s so professional and so dogged,” Juan Zarate, who was a top national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration, told me. “In some ways he’s the perfect choice.”
In other ways, he sounds like a nightmare.
Why would we want the country’s top security post to be filled by the guy who organized a sprawling, illegal program to spy on New York City’s Muslim community and who has overseen the emergence of a stop-and-frisk regime whose blatant racial bias is a national embarrassment and potential propaganda tool for our enemies? Whether it’s directing the Transportation Security Agency and our airports, managing immigration and border enforcement, or just generally having his way with a multi-billion dollar budget, the opportunities for abuse in a Kelly-run DHS are terrifying to contemplate.
Given that he has already worked closely with the CIA on controversial programs in New York and plenty of cities abroad, it’s hard to imagine Kelly being a force for restraint at a time when the Feds’ surveillance powers are under scrutiny from the public and the media. His returning to DC, where in the Clinton years he served as US Customs commissioner (among other posts), would reinforce the already widespread perception that the Obama administration is indifferent to civil libertarian criticism of its national security policy. In many ways, Kelly is even more authoritarian than the Obama Justice Department—when Attorney General Eric Holder recommended that the NYPD have an outside authority monitor the stop-and-frisk program, Kelly publicly “blasted” (to use the New York Post’s phrasing) his old buddy Holder.
That’s the real problem with Kelly: his stubborn resistance to oversight. No matter what you think about his far-reaching but admittedly effective policing tactics (in 2012 we saw the fewest murders in NYC in 40 years), it’s pretty obvious that he prefers to do his own thing with minimal outside interference—which is not exactly a trivial personality trait given the ability of individual NSA analysts to casually flip through massive amounts of personal information thanks to programs like PRISM.
“What could really hurt him is not recognizing that you cannot have internal mechanisms without external review of some sort,” explained Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former city cop and prosecutor who thinks the NYPD has atrophied under Kelly’s extended supervision. “It’s preposterous to think that a local police department on its own volition can run an international antiterrorism apparatus with no oversight.” But that’s exactly what Kelly has insisted on doing for more than a decade in the name of preventing another 9/11-style attack. Mayor Michael Bloomberg reportedly cedes almost total autonomy to the commissioner, so the appointment of Kelly would signal that there’s really no end to the war on terror and the aggressive sprawl of the national security state in sight.
Even if one hears a completely different story from the White House and its allies.
“It’s an interesting moment for the DHS, especially in light of the president’s recent counterterrorism speech,” said Zarate. “He laid out a vision for thinking about the end of the war on terror, or at least the cessation of the war as we’ve known it, and that presents existential issues for the Department.”
Appointing Kelly would be consistent with the approach we’ve actually been getting from President Obama, as opposed to his rhetoric. Going back to some heavy-handed, even illegal, tactics at the 2004 Republican National Convention, Kelly’s reign has been marked by an almost Colin Powell-esque affection for overwhelming force. This was on display again almost two years ago when his men staged a middle-of-the-night assault on Occupy Wall Street at the behest of the billionaire mayor he serves. Kelly seems like he’d fit right in with an administration that has overseen almost as many prosecutions for medical marijuana in one term as Bush did in two, coordinated with local law enforcement in that same crackdown on OWS camps, and continues to use surveillance and armed drones on a scale Bush never did, resulting in the accidental deaths of scores of civilians among the anonymous thousands targeted.
So if Obama and Schumer really do want to soften their party’s full-throttle approach to terrorism and crime-fighting, Kelly would be an odd choice. “The DHS has been completely captured by the terrorism-industrial complex,” says Heather Mac Donald, a senior fellow at the libertarian-leaning Manhattan Institute and a Kelly admirer who is concerned he might prove too focused on terrorism at the expense of other threats like immigration.
Schumer’s choice of Kelly, however, might not have all that much to do with the nitty-gritty of counterterrorism policy. The legendarily crafty senator has been trying to get the House to consider the immigration reform legislation he just squeezed through the Senate. Many GOP Congressmen are fixated on the border-security aspects of the bill, and if they knew a conservative security hawk was going to be the one implementing the thing, they might really think about passing it—indeed, yesterday some congressional Republicans were making noise about how “respected” Kelly is. So maybe the plan being not-so-secretly worked out is Kelly gets appointed, promises to build the fence at the Mexican border and enforce existing immigration laws (a big sticking point for conservatives), and in return enough Tea Party-leaning Republicans vote for Schumer’s bill, it passes, and everyone goes home and pounds some Budweiser.
Under this scenario, it could even have been at Schumer’s behest (with the confirmation hearing in mind) that Kelly a few weeks ago expressed disapproval of the secrecy surrounding the NSA’s programs—although it’s worth noting that Kelly didn’t challenge the act of mass spying itself but rather simply indicated that Americans should have been given a heads-up.
Such a deal, however, assumes that the congressional GOP is a good-faith rational actor, which would have been a reasonable enough notion as recently as the early 1990s. Unfortunately, as New York’s Jonathan Chait pointed out in a typically astute piece the other day, this is no longer the case. Defeating this law (indeed, any version of immigration reform that isn’t just BUILD A WALL written in pen) appears to be their plan, and attempting to rescue the project by empowering Kelly with a bigger platform than ever is not a good idea.
That’s how we’re going to end up with no immigration reform and an authoritarian running Homeland Security.
Matt Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer whose reporting about politics has appeared in Slate, Salon, the Daily Beast, the Atlantic, the New Republic, and New York. You can follow him on Twitter: @matthewt_ny
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