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President Pitches Homeland Security

Terrorism: The U.S. is vulnerable, says Bush, as he opens a drive to get public backing for department.

June 12, 2002|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — President Bush, using the commonplace to focus attention on the extraordinary, toured a water treatment plant here Tuesday to drive home his warning that, from the shoreline to the heartland, the United States is vulnerable to new and frightening modes of terrorist attack.

Both his visit to the water facility and his speech at a nearby high school reflected the single-minded attention that the White House is devoting to win public support for a new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.

Given new ammunition by the disclosure that an American, Jose Padilla, was in military custody in connection with an alleged plot to explode a radioactive ''dirty'' bomb, possibly in Washington, Bush is launching a campaign much like the earlier ones he focused on overhauling federal education programs and getting Congress to cut taxes.

He plans to keep up a steady drumbeat in coming days.

Today he signs a bioterrorism bill at the White House and meets with his newly named homeland security advisory committee, when he will also make remarks about the urgency of the counter-terrorism effort. William H. Webster, the former FBI and CIA director, was among those named to the panel Tuesday.

It is part of what presidential aides predict will be a common theme, both at the White House and on the road, as Bush carries that message to audiences around the country and tries to build pressure on Congress to complete work on his proposed government reorganization as quickly as possible.

Before flying here, Bush met with congressional leaders at the White House, pressuring them to move swiftly on his plan to create the department.

''We're in for a long struggle in this war on terror,'' the president said during a photo session in the Cabinet Room. ''There are people that still want to harm America.''

Speaking later in the day to an audience in the Oak Park High School gymnasium, Bush said the new department is needed to effectively coordinate the federal government's anti-terrorism work, which is now being done by about 100 agencies.

Acknowledging that one person--''me''--would be held accountable for success or failure in the anti-terrorism campaign, the president noted:

''I'm the kind of fellow who likes to pick up the phone and say, 'How we doing?' ... I don't like the idea of calling 100 different agencies; I like to call one and say, 'Here is the strategy, and what are you doing about it?' ''

Bush asked the audience to put pressure on Congress, which he warned could stumble in an intramural fight over which committees would gain responsibility for monitoring the new department and its 169,000 employees:

''I need the help of the American people to remind the turf fighters not to be nervous, because we're talking about doing what's right for America.''

In explaining his reorganization plan to the audience, made up of local residents--not all of them Bush supporters--the president reduced it to its basics: Protecting the nation's borders (''We need to know who's coming in and why they're not going out''), supporting emergency response personnel, developing greater capacity to detect impending attacks and weapons of mass destruction, and making better use of information developed by the CIA, the FBI and other intelligence operations.

Illustrating the need to realign government agencies, Bush cited the Coast Guard.

''Guess who they report to? The Transportation Department. The Transportation Department is worried about highways and airplanes and railroads,'' the president said.

Bush went out of his way to praise the FBI, which has been sharply criticized in recent weeks as details of missed cues and other lapses have emerged in examinations of how government agencies functioned before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Singling out its director, he said: ''The FBI man running it now, a guy named Robert Mueller, came on one week before September the 11th. That's when he started his job. He's had his hands full. But he's a good man. He knows what to do.''

The White House has shown itself adept at focusing almost exclusively on one issue and thus largely controlling the public agenda. Such was the case when the administration fought for congressional approval of its tax cut and its education proposals, gearing nearly all of the president's travels to audiences to which he could drive home his political arguments.

The treatment plant, which provides water to 800,000 residents of Missouri and Kansas, offered just such an opportunity.

Since Sept. 11, the plant has increased its security to provide protection 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which was not the case before the attacks. It has also increased its monitoring of intake valves and pumps.

During his State of the Union address in January, Bush said U.S. forces had found diagrams of U.S. public water facilities in Afghanistan.

About $53 million was provided in a post-Sept. 11 emergency funding bill for large utilities to conduct vulnerability assessments on their water systems, and the new bioterrorism bill would provide an additional $160 million for small and medium-sized water agencies to conduct similar assessments. Water agencies are seeking more funding.

Times staff writer Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.

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