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Security: Risk in Rushing

November 24, 2002

So much partisan bickering has surrounded the homeland security bill passed last week by Congress that the sheer magnitude of creating the department is only starting to sink in. The federal government is preparing for its biggest reorganization in 50 years -- consolidating 22 agencies with 170,000 employees into a new department.

Though the White House is claiming that the department can be fully up and running in less than a year, the nonpartisan General Accounting Office has properly cautioned that it will take a systematic and patient "multiyear effort." The administration and Congress need to ensure that the department does not attempt to accomplish everything overnight, only to end up accomplishing nothing.

The department will be divided into four divisions -- transportation; emergency preparedness; chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear countermeasures; and information analysis. Despite the fancy titles, the first questions facing the department are nuts-and-bolts ones.

The department will have to work on the morale problem from the outset. The Bush administration's resistance to guaranteed job protections for many homeland security employees has prompted the American Federation of Government Employees to post a sign on its Web site: "Remember your workplace rights -- because you're about to lose them!"

The department will have to decide on a single computer system to coordinate agencies such as the Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that will come under its umbrella. With so many jobs at stake, even the question of where the new department will be based has triggered controversy.

In deciding these logistical and equipment issues, the government will inevitably rely heavily on outside contractors. The department should not rush into signing contracts, but rather should scrutinize competitive bids and have a coherent month-by- month plan for buying. To its credit, a White House transition team has been working on some of these issues.

The department also faces the longer-term question of how far its reach should extend, particularly in the area of intelligence. Here again, the department should not overreach initially.

Though the department does not have the power to collect data, it will have an information analysis unit that can process information from the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies. This should help coordinate information and should be the priority of the department. Even if the Homeland Security Department never obtains the ability to carry out intelligence work, its mere existence could serve as a spur to the FBI to improve its performance.

As daunting as the start-up problems are, the creation of the Homeland Security Department offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the administration and Congress to systematically overhaul the bureaucracy and strengthen security. The government must move deliberately as it works to bring about the birth of the new agency that could profoundly affect everyday American life and safety.

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