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Homeland Penny-Pinching

January 30, 2003

President Bush never wanted a Homeland Security Department. He finally embraced the idea, before the mid-term elections, and used it as a powerful weapon to bash Democrats for their supposed lack of anti-terrorist resolve. Now that the massive new agency is a part of his government, he's starving it. It's like sending soldiers into battle unarmed and untrained.

The department has opened its doors in Washington, but it's an organization in name only. For this year, the president requested almost $38 billion for the department that one day will consolidate 22 agencies and more than 177,000 employees. He will probably ask for close to $40 billion for the next. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says the expected increase would be sufficient. But a good chunk of that $2-billion boost, which terrorism experts say is not nearly enough, would go to the Defense Department. A new Brookings Institution study, for instance, argues that this year alone an additional $10 billion is imperative.

The lack of cash will have repercussions nationwide. The department is supposed to help defray money spent by the states. But Bush's penny-pinching will foist more anti-terror costs on California and its impoverished brethren when they can least afford it.

Congress passed legislation last fall to improve security at ports, including Los Angeles and Long Beach. But Washington has disbursed only about $200 million of the almost $1 billion the Coast Guard says should be spent to improve security. Yet, a terrorist strike at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex could easily trigger a national economic catastrophe.

Ridge has admitted that governors and mayors haven't seen "one dime." In early December, the Justice Department halted new grants for "first responders" -- the firefighters and medical personnel who need protective gear and communications devices to counter any chemical or biological attacks. And the federal government is stiffing California and other states for the expensive coastal patrols it expects them to conduct.

As though this isn't troubling enough, Bush gave the department another poke in the eye with his State of the Union announcement that he would establish a new anti-terrorism center based at the CIA, to coordinate domestic and foreign intelligence from different agencies.

America's security apparatus looks like the Winchester Mystery House, the rambling San Jose mansion whose eccentric owner kept adding rooms and staircases that went nowhere. Bush needs to accept that he's stuck with the Homeland Security Department, give it the money it needs to thrive and start tearing down the tangle of redundant and ineffective bureaucracies that hobble U.S. security efforts.

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