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A new level of security

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

By Washington Post
June 7, 2002

Reorganization would be massive

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, outlining the most ambitious reorganization of the government's national security structure in a half century, urged Congress Thursday night to create a Department of Homeland Security to coordinate intelligence about terrorism and tighten the nation's domestic defenses.

The department would absorb a huge swath of the executive branch, including all of the Coast Guard, Secret Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Naturalization Service and Customs Service, as well as the new agency in charge of airport security, the Transportation Security Administration. Only the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department would have more employees.

"As we have learned more about the plans and capabilities of the terrorist network, we have concluded that our government must be reorganized to deal more effectively with the new threats of the 21st century," Bush said from the White House in remarks carried live in prime time on commercial networks.

With the proposal to create a Cabinet department, Bush embraced an idea he had long resisted. In the frantic days after Sept. 11, Bush established a small Office of Homeland Security within the White House and chose Tom Ridge, then the Pennsylvania governor, as its director.

But officials came to the conclusion that this structure was unworkable because Ridge did not have clear authority over the agencies charged with homeland protection or his budget.

In presenting his plan Thursday night, Bush navigated between trying to reassure Americans about the government's efforts to protect them over the past nine months, and building the case for major change. He began by listing the financial, military and other steps he has taken to hinder and punish terrorists.

"Based on everything I've seen, I do not believe anyone could have prevented the horror of September the 11th," Bush said. "Yet we now know that thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us, and this terrible knowledge requires us to act differently."

Bush's speech came days after Congress opened hearings to examine intelligence failures before the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, and Democrats said the timing suggested a massive effort to control damage to the White House after a spate of revelation about lack of communication among intelligence officials before Sept. 11. And it came hours after Coleen Rowley, the FBI whistleblower from Minneapolis who accuses the agency of mishandling warnings, testified before a televised Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Bush, under pressure from Congress to show the administration will be better prepared to prevent and respond to terrorists strikes, called his plan the largest overhaul of the government since 1947, when President Harry Truman combined the War and Navy departments into the Defense Department.

The department was planned in secret by a small group of White House officials led by Chief of Staff Andrew Card, with Ridge's help, and many of the officials who would lose substantial power under the plan did not learn about it until Thursday. Administration officials said the announcement was scheduled hurriedly as support built on Capitol Hill for Democratic proposals for such a department.

Ridge, a close friend of Bush's with his desk near the Oval Office, was considered weak by Capitol Hill and the bureaucracy because he had no control over budgets for the various agencies he was supposed to coordinate. He became a late-night punch line for his best-known accomplishment -- the creation of a color-coded warning system.

Bush, in a conspicuous omission, did not say who he wanted to lead the department, although several senior officials said they believed it would be Ridge. Bush plans to retain a separate homeland security adviser, not accountable to Congress, under the new structure.

Reaction from Capitol Hill was largely positive, with Republican leaders promising to work toward passage of the reorganization. Democrats generally embraced and some even took credit for it, although some critics said the department would be unwieldy and would have the effect of combining dysfunctional agencies.

Administration officials said the Homeland Security Department, which would be the first new Cabinet agency since the Veterans Affairs Department in 1989, would eventually have its own building. Bush wants to combine workers from eight departments into his creation, from the Agriculture Department agents who check fruit at the border to scientists working in Energy Department laboratories. The proposal, which Bush wants passed in time for the department to open Jan. 1, answers persistent calls from Congress for more oversight of this new focus of the government, and would help remedy bureaucratic overlapping that was hampering the protection of 350 official ports of entry.

The administration said the department would add no employees or expenses to the government, but would take over 169,000 employees and $37.4-billion from existing agencies. It would have four divisions, responsible for controlling borders and keeping out terrorists and explosives; working with state and local authorities to prepare for emergencies; developing technologies to detect chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and to treat those who are exposed; and analyzing intelligence and law enforcement information.

The FBI and CIA are to keep their functions, but the department would have an "intelligence and threat analysis" unit to combine intelligence from those agencies and others to assess threats, take preventive action and issue public warnings.

"This new department will review intelligence and law enforcement information from all agencies of government and produce a single daily picture of threats against our homeland," Bush said. "Analysts will be responsible for imagining the worst and planing to counter it."

Administration officials said the department would allow officials assessing threats to talk directly to counterparts who are responsible for the security of nuclear, chemical and wastewater-treatment plans, and other critical parts of the nation's infrastructure.

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