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Streamlining U.S. Security

June 07, 2002

President Bush's vow Thursday to carry out the most sweeping restructuring of government since the beginning of the Cold War in 1947 comes at a similarly pivotal moment. For weeks, administration officials have reminded us that the forces that brought down the World Trade Center haven't evaporated, that someday a hatemonger with a twisted vision of jihad or some new breed of terrorist could detonate a weapon of mass destruction in Chicago, Omaha or Los Angeles.

Americans must fundamentally rethink how much power we give our government to protect us from enemies abroad and at home. Speed is essential. But people must not allow themselves to be panicked into embracing measures that undermine the freedoms that make this country worth defending.

Critics say it's no coincidence that Bush's proposal to elevate the Office of Homeland Security to Cabinet status and to broaden its powers came as Congress opened hearings to grill the FBI and CIA on the intelligence lapses that failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks. No matter. Bush's plan, which Congress must approve, breaks the intellectual and policy logjam that has left America vulnerable. As the FBI and CIA dish dirt on each other's 9/11 failures, no one seems to be doing much creative, strategic thinking about how to avoid a repetition of that awful day.

The president's plan seeks to end the confusing patchwork of agencies responsible for security and place them under the umbrella of a Department of Homeland Security. The new, permanent entity would draw from eight Cabinet departments to create four divisions, responsible for border and transportation; emergency preparedness and response; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear countermeasures; and intelligence.

The last division would probably prove most immediately valuable, and its creation would need the most scrutiny. The refusal of the FBI and CIA to cooperate in the months and years before last September clearly crippled America's defenses. The proposed department, by contrast, would be able to gather information from each area of government--FBI, CIA, Customs Service, Coast Guard and Immigration and Naturalization (or the proposed new agency that may replace the INS).

Precise and accurate intelligence that has been coordinated by a single agency could disrupt or foil future attacks. But with such power comes the danger of abuse, and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, for one, has already shown a disturbing disregard for civil liberties in his treatment of detainees swept up after the September attacks.

Governments are, by nature, power hungry. In a democracy, people have the responsibility to keep the power for themselves--in this case, to make sure fear of terrorism doesn't cause a slide toward tyranny. Americans want protection, but on their own terms.

The impassioned debate that will shape Bush's plan is a sign of how robust this democracy remains. The discussion must grapple with practical matters: How, for instance, can Congress keep the new Cabinet post from becoming another paper-shuffling bureaucracy? But the proposal also will force a wider reckoning with the philosophical debate triggered by 9/11.

Freedom and security need not be incompatible, even as the U.S. is locked in what Bush called a "titanic struggle" against terrorists. But figuring out how to strike the precise balance will require even more determination than it took to clean up ground zero--which remains the clearest possible reminder of the urgent need to make the nation more secure.

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