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THE NATION

New Defense Agency Begins 'Vital Mission'

As Bush and Ridge hail the first official day of the Department of Homeland Security, Democrats say nation remains vulnerable.

January 25, 2003|Vicki Kemper | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For such a historic day, it felt a lot like the day before.

The Coast Guard was still patrolling the nation's waters and helping stranded boaters. The Border Patrol was on the lookout for swimmers in the Rio Grande. The Secret Service agents protecting the president stood as ramrod straight as ever, and employees of the new Transportation Security Administration continued to inspect the carry-on bags of passengers boarding airplanes.

But the makeup of the federal government had changed, and in subtle but significant ways some things were different.

In Connecticut, the state health department began offering smallpox vaccinations despite protests by health-worker unions. The Customs Service prepared for Monday's opening of an office that will coordinate the security flights of Blackhawk helicopters and P-3 military aircraft over the nation's capital.

President Bush declared Friday, the first official day of the Department of Homeland Security, a "historic moment" and the beginning of "a vital mission in the defense of our country."

And Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor who could have been the model for GI Joe, was sworn in as the nation's first secretary of Homeland Security. After more than a year of planning, debating and politicking, Ridge finally had a department to run -- and probably the toughest job in town.

At his Day One news conference, the new secretary touted his office's administrative progress toward creating one cohesive department from 22 disparate agencies and more than 177,000 employees. Yet Ridge knows the new department's real work is not about creating a unified personnel system, designing a Web site, moving into new headquarters or unveiling the department's logo (a shield-shaped flag) but something much harder.

The department's true mission, Ridge said Friday, is to work "on a daily basis to better protect our fellow citizens and our way of life."

Some have faulted the Bush administration's approach to making the country safer as underfunded and misdirected. Ridge had barely finished taking the oath of office and kissing his wife, son and daughter before leading Democrats resumed their criticism of the Bush administration's funding levels for homeland security and questioned whether America is any safer that it was on Sept. 11.

"We remain dangerously vulnerable," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a presidential candidate, said in a statement.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), citing what she called "a myth of homeland security," said, "The truth is we are not prepared.... Somewhere along the line, we lost our edge. We let our guard down."

Ridge was having none of it.

"It's not a myth that 170,000 people go to work every day," he said.

"It's not a myth that the information sharing between the CIA and the FBI and the Office of Homeland Security gets better every day. It's not a myth that twice a day, representatives of the intelligence community, through video conferencing, consult with one another about either the information they've received, threats that they're monitoring or situations that they're working on."

But a new report from the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, also says the nation's homeland security efforts have fallen short. It faults the Bush administration for focusing too much on efforts to respond to terrorist attacks and too little on efforts to prevent them.

While the government made significant security improvements immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- particularly in air travel, intelligence sharing and defense against bioterrorism -- the report said that "in 2002, the country lost a good deal of momentum on improving homeland security."

The report warns that the overwhelming bureaucratic task of creating the department threatens to siphon resources and energy away from the "more urgent security efforts" of creating a stronger intelligence-sharing network, providing better protection of chemical plants, skyscrapers and transportation networks and strengthening the Coast Guard and Customs Service.

The report's authors also say that adequate homeland defense will require much more money, an additional $10 billion annually in federal funds over the more than $38 billion Bush requested for this fiscal year.

On the question of funding, Ridge criticized Congress for failing thus far to pass 11 of its 13 annual spending bills for this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

Speaking of the mayors, governors, police and fire departments who have been waiting to receive federal homeland security funds, Ridge said, "I can understand right now their huge frustration.... They still haven't seen dime one."

Overall, however, Ridge's first day on the job as Homeland Security secretary was a demonstration of upbeat, can-do spirit.

"We're ready to go to work and have been working," he said, referring to his department's incoming employees -- most of whom officially join the department March 1 -- and the four deputies seated on the podium behind him.

Then he added: "And that's the way it is, and that's the way it's going to be."

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