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Security Without Snafus

Proposed homeland agency cannot afford bureaucratic failures.

November 13, 2002

Al Qaeda remains a potent threat to the United States. So do the sort of bureaucratic snafus that could hobble the proposed Homeland Security Department in its efforts to thwart terrorism -- assuming Congress finally lets the new Cabinet-level agency get off the ground, as it probably will within days.

President Bush is right to call efforts to create this department the "single most important business" before the lame-duck Congress. But Senate Republicans and Democrats have already squandered too much energy feuding over whether employees of the department would enjoy Civil Service protections.

If the homeland security bill passes, however, a host of problems will remain.

One of the department's main tasks would be to help coordinate intelligence, but the FBI and CIA are left essentially intact by a reorganization plan that seeks to combine the powers of various agencies to fight terrorism. Would the department be able to obtain information from the intelligence community quickly or would it be reduced to offering vague and widely ridiculed color-coded warnings like the ones security czar Tom Ridge has been issuing?

On a similar note, the administration has yet to demonstrate a coherent plan for coordinating the hodgepodge of agencies it is proposing to put under the umbrella of homeland security. How, for instance, does it plan to avoid bureaucratic warfare, making sure that agencies and departments devote more time to fighting terrorists than to battling each other for perks and prerogatives?

Another thing: A Council on Foreign Relations study chaired by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman lamented last month that the government had taken a "reactive" approach to avoiding the next terrorist attack. The administration has failed to improve information sharing and the ability of thousands of state and local "first responders" to counteract terrorist assaults.

Would the Homeland Security Department have the good sense to coordinate more effectively and provide protective gear and training for firefighters, paramedics and police officers, those who will be first on the scene the next time Al Qaeda or some similar enemy strikes?

To avoid a fiasco, the president should put the fledgling agency in the hands of former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) or someone similarly familiar with both international and domestic issues.

The federal government is about to experience its biggest upheaval since the late 1940s, when Harry Truman reorganized the defense establishment. The Homeland Security Department needs a leader with zero tolerance for snafus.

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