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Homeland Security sputters into reality

Corralling 22 agencies and 170,000 employees under one roof turns out to be a daunting task.

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2003

WASHINGTON - The new Department of Homeland Security was meant to be a kind of super-agency, knocking government heads to keep America safe from terrorism. Instead, the Cabinet office has turned out woefully short of muscle.

Six months after its opening, the nearly $37-billion department is struggling to digest 22 agencies and 170,000 employees thrust under its command in March. With inconsistent support from the White House and Congress, it has suffered funding shortages, staff defections, confusion about its mission and demoralizing defeats in intra-government turf battles.

Secretary Tom Ridge has been the butt of late-night television jokes for the department's color-coded terrorist threat alert system. Last month, he faced a grilling on Meet the Press for attempting to trim the air marshals program as intelligence services were warning that al-Qaida was planning new attacks on U.S. passenger planes.

"I'm worried about Homeland Security. It could well become the federal government version of the Department of Motor Vehicles - just a paper-pushing agency. I don't think it's there yet, but it has to get more aggressive at the top in communicating a clear mission," said Paul Light, a governance specialist at the Brookings Institution.

Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, now a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, first proposed the new department a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The White House was initially opposed. But President Bush eventually moved with the political winds to support the department's creation.

The road has been bumpy.

In a sign of staff turmoil, Ridge's deputy, Gordon England, is returning to his old job as secretary of the Navy. And the Washington Post reported that more than 15 people declined offers to apply for the top post in the department's intelligence unit.

Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for Homeland Security, said critics fail to focus on the department's successes. The new Transportation Security Administration has greatly improved airport security, he said.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, "A 4-inch knife was allowed on an aircraft. We now have 50,000 highly trained, professional screeners who have confiscated more than 6.5-million items. We have reinforced doors on cockpits, added federal air marshals and we are beginning to train pilots" to carry guns, he said.

In a Sept. 2 speech, Ridge reiterated the theme of progress: "We can never guarantee that we are free from the possibility of terrorist attack, but we can say this: We are more secure and better prepared than we were two years ago."

Still, the list of snarls in Ridge's department is significant. In one frequently repeated comment, critics say Homeland Security agencies' incompatible computer networks don't allow them to share watch lists of potential terrorists.

Roehrkasse, however, said there is more at issue than integrating databases, such as deciding the best manner for combining the watch lists. He said that database integration is a goal but that paying for it is a subject for Congress.

Still, one of the central reasons for creating the department was undermined earlier this year when Bush announced that a new government-wide clearinghouse for intelligence would reside at the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Terrorist Threat Integration Center merges units of the FBI, CIA and other agencies to avoid a replay of the failures to share intelligence that helped make the 2001 attacks possible.

Meanwhile, a General Accounting Office report released last month said Homeland Security needs to better communicate with state and local law-enforcement agencies. "Information on threats, methods and techniques of terrorists is not routinely shared, and the information that is shared is not perceived as timely, accurate or relevant," the report said.

Roehrkasse countered that the GAO's survey of states was taken before Homeland Security was operational. "We have since installed secure video and teleconferencing equipment to all Homeland Security advisers in all states" and distributed important intelligence information on new bombing tactics by al-Qaida, he said.

Ridge, meanwhile, has spent much of his time holding news conferences, sometimes with little obvious connection to homeland security. In July, he appeared with America's Most Wanted creator John Walsh to announce a new initiative to identify child predators and child pornographers.

And then there was the duct tape and plastic sheeting. Ridge's advice to homeowners for sealing windows in case of a biological or chemical weapons attack was a bonanza for late-night television comics, about as good as the color-coded terrorist threat alert system Homeland Security devised to warn Americans about the likelihood of an attack (the threat is currently at yellow for "elevated.")

Ridge knows the initiatives have caused people to laugh at the department, and at a meeting of the Outdoors Advertising Association in June, he confronted this image problem head on.

"You got five colors," Ridge said, pretending to be Tonight Show host Jay Leno doing a stand-up routine. "How do you think it's going to work when you got three colors on a traffic light and no one pays attention to that!"

As the laughter died down, Ridge intoned soberly, "In fact, people are paying very close attention to the threat warning system."

Or are they?

Around the country, local elected officials have criticized the threat warning system as too vague to be effective and costly to comply with. A survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that cities were spending about $70-million more per week on security during the Iraq war, which coincided with an increased threat alert.

And promised federal funds have been slow coming to states.

"If you look at Florida and the Tampa Bay area, I think it's been very, very slow in getting the funds to the ports and the first responders for the equipment and training they need to do their job," said U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa.

Davis doesn't blame Ridge for the delays, arguing that the secretary is not getting support from Congress and the White House.

Indeed, $4-billion in federal emergency preparedness funds are flowing inordinately to low-risk states, thanks to congressional politics. Although Congress has recently allowed Homeland Security some flexibility in distributing funds to states with more obvious terrorist targets, the current formula has funneled nearly $10 per capita to Wyoming but only $1.40 to New York and $1.48 to Florida.

Even the State Department, often the odd-agency out in the Bush administration, has won a bureaucratic battle with Homeland Security. Last week, Ridge's department agreed to delay a new border-security requirement that visitors to the United States from 27 countries in Europe and Asia carry new computer-readable passports.

State had feared the new rules, implemented too quickly, would cause widespread travel confusion.

Other border-security projects have met with a better reception. Earlier this month, Ridge announced a "One Face at the Border" initiative to cross-train border inspectors. The change will relieve travelers entering the United States from having to make separate stops at customs, immigration and agriculture inspection desks.

The Brookings Institution's Light said it will take time for the agencies' workers to act as a team, not rivals.

"Customs people see themselves as being much better at what they do than immigration people," Light said. "The immigration people feel they can at least look down on the agriculture people, and the agriculture people are saying to themselves, "What are we doing here?' "

Roehrkasse, the Homeland Security spokesman, said the new department is naturally going to have growing pains.

"We have made significant progress reorganizing our Homeland Security professionals and giving them the additional tools they need to do their jobs," he said. "However, we understand that integrating 22 different departments is not going to happen overnight."

THE DEPARTMENT

One in every 12 employees in the federal government - more than 170,000 - are on the Homeland Security payroll.

The new Cabinet department, with a budget of more than $26-billion, is composed of four directorates: Border and Transportation Security, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Science and Technology, and Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection.

Among the agencies now part of Homeland Security are the Customs Service (transferred from the Treasury Department), Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (Agriculture Deparment) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Secret Service and the Coast Guard are independent agencies within the department.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has been transferred from the Justice Department and split into separate law enforcement and immigration processing arms.

A new agency, the Transportation Security Administration, has taken over airport baggage and passenger screening. It will spend more than $7.1-billion in 2003 but faces a $900-million funding shortfall.

- Sources: Department of Homeland Security; New York Times; CQ


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