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A new level of security

Bush proposes creating a cabinet-level department to oversee homeland defense

Analysis By SARA FRITZ and BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002


Bush bows to pressure for post

WASHINGTON -- To silence his critics, President Bush has decided to create the one thing Republicans hate most: more government.

When Bush outlined his proposal for a new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security on Thursday night, it was widely seen as the political equivalent of waving a white flag. For months, the White House had resisted pressure from Democrats in Congress to create a Cabinet department dedicated to protecting the country against a terrorist attack.

Bush also was bowing to the growing chorus of Republicans and Democrats who argue that Tom Ridge, director of the White House Office of Homeland Security, has lacked the authority necessary to be effective.

But politics aside, even conservative Republicans who had opposed creation of a Cabinet department indicated a willingness to embrace it.

"The president's proposal is a good one," said Michael Scardaville, homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that did not support the idea until Thursday. He noted that it was far more sweeping than anything the Democrats had envisioned.

The proposed department, which would have 170,000 employees and be the third largest federal agency, brings together an eclectic mix of existing agencies including the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It also will have an entirely new office dedicated to analyzing intelligence materials from the FBI and CIA.

Administration officials denied that the move is intended to quell criticism of Bush's stewardship of counterterrorism activities. Although the president resisted the idea of a new Cabinet department earlier, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer insisted it was not as dramatic a change in policy as it seemed.

Bush's critics nevertheless celebrated it as a big political victory.

"It's about time!" said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., a leading advocate of creating a Cabinet department. "I just hope it is not too late. The administration for months pushed hard against making Director Ridge a Cabinet-level official and allowing him to work openly and directly with Congress.

"That stubborn stonewalling has wasted both time and opportunity to make critical improvements to security in the nation. I hope this . . . amounts to more than reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Scardaville noted that Bush resisted and Democrats insisted on a Cabinet department primarily because it -- unlike Ridge's advisory office -- will be subject to strict oversight by Congress. Earlier this year, Ridge refused to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee because he is a presidential adviser, not an appointee to a position created by law.

The Bush administration had balked at the creation of a department because it goes against the Republican orthodoxy of smaller government.

Fleischer, in an attempt to minimize Bush's shift in policy, insisted the administration had never rejected the idea of a Cabinet-level department. He cited testimony last April by Budget Director Mitch Daniels, who left open the possibility the president's thinking on the subject could "evolve."

However, Ridge, in an interview on Wednesday with the National Journal, said he opposed writing his position into law and would advise the president to veto such legislation.

Conservatives have recently joined forces with Democrats in criticizing Bush for failing to give Ridge authority over hiring or budget of homeland defense agencies. This week's issue of the National Review, for example, called Ridge "the ineffective director of a young office without a clear mission," but it stopped short of calling for a Cabinet department.

It is unclear whether the White House would appoint Ridge to lead the proposed department. Republicans noted that Democrats such as Byrd would oppose his nomination. Fleischer was noncommittal on the question, saying that Ridge would continue to serve in the White House and lobby for creation of the department.

If Congress adopts the president's proposal, it would be the largest reorganization of the government since the Truman administration. The last two Cabinet departments created were the Education Department in 1980 and the Veterans Affairs Department in 1989.

Earlier this year, Republicans also fought the proposal to have the federal government take over aviation security. Although they relented under public pressure, many Republicans have said the Transportation Security Administration does not need to be as big as planned -- about 65,000 federal workers.

The CIA and FBI are famous for resisting cooperation with other government agencies. But some observers believe the two agencies have suffered so much criticism in the wake of last year's terrorist attack that they will feel obligated to work closely with analysts in the new department.

The idea of a homeland security department was first put forth several years ago by a commission headed by former Sens. Warren Rudman and Gary Hart. It was ignored until Sept. 11, when some members of Congress began to advocate it.

Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Bob Graham, D-Fla., among others, offered bills to create a new department. Reacting to Bush's proposal, Graham said he was especially pleased the department would centralize the analysis of intelligence.

"That, I think, was one of the big gaps prior to Sept. 11," said Graham, who is leading Intelligence Committee hearings into the alleged lack of preparedness prior to last year's attack. "It will be a significant change in how we analyze our intelligence and should be a significant improvement."

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