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Aides kept homeland security plan under wraps

By Washington Post
June 7, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The decision was made largely by just four of President Bush's most trusted senior aides, working in a bunker-style, secure conference room beneath the White House.

By the time of the daily meeting Thursday morning of Bush's 20 most senior aides, most did not know the details, officials told the Washington Post. Even Cabinet secretaries were kept in the dark about the plan until informed Wednesday -- and senior officials in the departments affected by the realignment learned about it from news reports Thursday morning.

Congressional leaders, too, were unaware. Hundreds of lawmakers attending the White House barbecue Wednesday night had no idea what was unfolding. The only two believed to have been briefed, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., were told during the picnic.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., author of legislation much like the White House's proposal, got a call from Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge Wednesday night asking about details of his bill -- but Ridge didn't give a hint of what was coming the next morning.

White House officials figured that the element of surprise would give their proposal a better chance of success. Early leaks, they said, would have allowed opponents, particularly committee chairmen who stand to lose authority under the proposal, to gain the initiative. "This will not be easy for Congress, but it will be easier with a big head of steam," press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

The potential danger with the Bush administration's approach is that by restricting the number of people involved in decisions, they do not get the necessary input. Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee issued a statement saying that resulted in "a haphazard plan." Bush aides say they got plenty of input, from Congress and Cabinet agencies -- before officials sat down on April 23 to draft a plan.

Clinton administration veterans expressed grudging admiration Thursday. Could this have been kept secret in the Clinton White House? "Quite honestly? Unlikely," said David Leavy, spokesman for the National Security Council under Clinton. "They have a very small loop in terms of top-line information, and that allows them to control news flow in a way you have to admire."

On that day nine weeks ago, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Ridge, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels convened their working group to create the Cabinet-level entity. They relied on a few other senior aides, including Card deputies Joseph Hagin and Joshua Bolten.

Even some of the most senior Bush aides, including counselor Karen Hughes, political strategist Karl Rove, Fleischer and speechwriter Michael Gerson, didn't join the process until last week, officials said. As of Wednesday, officials said, fewer than 20 Bush aides had knowledge of the plan.

The rollout began Wednesday, with one-on-one meetings with most of the Cabinet members who would lose jurisdiction to the new agency.

The operation began in earnest Thursday morning at the 7:30 senior staff meeting. The vice president and other senior officials began to brief key lawmakers, and at 10 a.m., he walked into the briefing room to give the announcement.

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