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Security: Getting It Right

June 14, 2002

The Bush administration's decision to make homeland security a Cabinet position, after months of denying that any changes were necessary, is a turn in the right direction. But as the slim 24-page draft issued by the administration last week indicates, the department is very much a work in progress. The 24 pages of flowcharts and bold type outline an agency that would have nearly 170,000 employees, a multibillion-dollar budget and potential authority over parts of the CIA, FBI, Transportation Department and more than a dozen other agencies. The administration and Congress have lots of fleshing out to do, offering many opportunities for missteps and political mischief.

The Justice Department's announcement Monday that it had foiled a plot to detonate a "dirty" radiation-containing bomb in a major city was well orchestrated to underscore the urgency of creating a Department of Homeland Security. The arrest of former Chicago gang member Jose Padilla, who goes by the name Abdullah al Muhajir, is a trumpeted success for intelligence agencies. But if Padilla turns out to be the terrorist the government says he is, it also will mean that recruitment inside the United States is a real threat.

Once President Bush submits a legislative proposal in a few weeks, Congress must ensure that the new agency's director is not the figurehead that Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has been.

The administration correctly seeks to pull together agencies such as the Coast Guard, immigration service and Transportation Security Administration, but in some instances it goes too far. Congress will need to distinguish which departments inside those agencies should be controlled by Homeland Security. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, do all sorts of public-health work that is distant from terrorist threats. Anything from AIDS vaccine research to childhood disease studies could be disrupted.

At the same time, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and other lawmakers are right to warn that the Bush plan may not go far enough in assuring cooperation between the FBI and CIA. The head of Homeland Security should have control over the counter-terrorism section of the FBI rather than simply being a passive consumer of information, as envisioned in the Bush proposal.

Nor is it realistic to claim, as Bush does, that the new department won't cost taxpayers more than existing agencies. The administration isn't asking for new funding for 2003, and it appears that it also wants to use the department to skirt traditional civil service requirements in order to weaken government unions. This is no time for such machinations: Congress should put a stop to end-runs around civil service and appropriate at least an interim budget as soon as possible.

No matter how much or how quickly Congress strengthens the structure of the department, its effectiveness still will depend on who's in charge. With his color-coded charts and unwillingness to insist on his own authority, Ridge has not shown that he is capable of much beyond loyalty to his boss. Pulling together this mammoth agency will take a savvy nonpartisan bureaucratic warrior, someone who can't be bamboozled and whom the president trusts. Bush's choice will speak volumes about how seriously he takes the new department he didn't want to create.

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