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A Times Editorial

A step toward security

A Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security deserves support, but it will not solve all the problems plaguing the nation's antiterrorism efforts.

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2002

A Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security deserves support, but it will not solve all the problems plaguing the nation's antiterrorism efforts.

President Bush's proposal to establish a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security is an overdue step toward reorganizing several fractious agencies that, in their current incarnations, are incapable of providing adequate national protection against future terrorist attacks. Winning approval for the reorganization from congressional leaders jealously protective of their turf will be a challenge. Developing the necessary level of cooperation and coordination among the competing executive-branch agencies to be subsumed under the new department will be even more difficult. Still, after months of post-Sept. 11 defensiveness, the White House deserves credit for offering a proposal that acknowledges the inadequacy of the current domestic security structure.

The president's first effort to consolidate homeland security under the direction of former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge hasn't worked. Without clear authority over budgets, policy and personnel, Ridge has been all but ignored by Attorney General John Ashcroft, leaders of the intelligence agencies and other federal officials accustomed to going their own way. The Bush administration originally chose not to give Ridge's position Cabinet status as a way to avoid congressional oversight, but that decision left Ridge out of the loop in the executive branch, too. In the public's mind, he has been reduced to issuing incomprehensible color-coded warning systems.

The president said he would send Ridge to Capitol Hill to seek support for the new Department of Homeland Security, but he has not said whether Ridge will be his choice to lead it. Presidential counselor Karen Hughes told the Times it would be "presumptuous to name a director before the agency exists." The president has time to decide whether Ridge already has been too diminished to serve effectively in the redefined post.

Even with strong leadership, it's not at all certain that this reorganization will solve the problem of competing fiefdoms. Bringing the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Customs Service, the Coast Guard and other vital agencies under one umbrella is a sensible step. However, the reorganization does not directly address evident problems at the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and other intelligence-gathering agencies that will remain separate from the new domestic security department. The new Cabinet office will receive only distillations of intelligence reports, rather than the kind of raw data those agencies ignored and suppressed prior to Sept. 11.

Timing is never coincidental in Washington. The president's surprise announcement had the effect of diverting attention Thursday from the opening of public congressional hearings that centered on intolerable failures within the FBI. Thursday's star witness was Coleen Rowley, the Minneapolis special agent who exposed FBI officials' impeding of the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged would-be 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 plot. FBI director Robert Mueller had a more difficult time in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he did nothing to explain why he waited months to inform the president and congressional leaders of clues the bureau missed prior to Sept. 11.

The creation of a new Department of Homeland Security will not necessarily cut through the bureaucratic resistance that Rowley and other FBI field agents have described. It will not necessarily make Mueller, Ashcroft and other officials outside the new structure more accountable. The broader reorganization cannot succeed unless serious reforms are made within each of the agencies responsible for domestic security. Hughes says the FBI "has already begun the process of reform." Ultimately, though, it will be up to the president himself to ensure that the FBI and other counterterrorism agencies cooperate fully with the new department and with each other.

Although it is only one step in a broader transformation that must take place, the proposed Department of Homeland Security deserves congressional support. The fight for congressional approval is likely to be less partisan than institutional. Most Democratic leaders were supporting this sort of reorganization before the White House did. Republican leaders are sure to fall in line -- at least publicly. However, many committee leaders from both parties will be reluctant to lose authority over government agencies now under their purview, and many agency heads will be quietly looking for congressional support for their efforts to retain their current autonomy.

The effort to protect the nation from terrorism is too important to be distorted by such personal considerations. President Bush should have no problem making that case to the American people, as long as his own decisions are seen as being motivated by the national interest rather than political calculation.

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