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Bush Proposes a Cabinet-Level Homeland Security Department

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under strong pressure from Congress, President Bush on Thursday proposed creating a Cabinet-level department to oversee homeland defense, with sweeping authority to protect the nation’s borders, ensure airline security and respond to national emergencies.

Bush unveiled his plan in a televised speech from the White House, saying the new agency would make the nation safer by eliminating security gaps and overlaps in the patchwork government system now responsible for protecting against terrorism.

“Right now, as many as a hundred different government agencies have some responsibilities for homeland security, and no one has final accountability,” he said.

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He asked Congress to pass legislation to “unite essential agencies that must work more closely together.”

The president’s proposal represents a sharp turn in policy direction, coming only after Bush’s creation of a homeland defense office inside the White House staff--and outside of congressional oversight--prompted a tense struggle with Congress.

The proposed Department of Homeland Security would annex agencies within eight Cabinet departments, including the Border Patrol, Coast Guard, Immigration and Naturalization Service and the newly created Transportation Security Administration. Bush’s top advisor on homeland defense, former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, is likely to be nominated as the department’s secretary.

If approved by Congress, the overhaul of security responsibilities would be the largest reorganization of the government since 1947, when the Department of Defense was created. The agency would become the third-largest Cabinet department--and the first new one since the creation of the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1989.

“Our government must be reorganized to deal more effectively with the new threats of the 21st century,” Bush said.

Congressional leaders generally applauded the proposal.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who chairs the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said, “The sooner we can get this new department created, and thereby raise our guard against terrorist attacks, the better.”

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Lieberman had been one of the most vocal in urging the administration to create the department, and his support will be important in pushing the Senate to approve the proposal.

As recently as Tuesday, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) had also called for such action.

But winning congressional approval by the end of the year may pose a challenge to the administration.

Each existing agency that it would incorporate has supporters in Congress, as well as often-powerful interest groups that support it, and the administration will have to consult with turf-conscious leaders of several dozen committees and subcommittees from both parties.

Reference to Titanic

After Bush’s speech, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said he hopes the measure “amounts to more than just reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The goal of the reorganization is to give one agency full responsibility for protecting the nation against attack, to avoid the gaps in coordination and the lack of cooperation by government offices that let crucial information fall through the cracks.

The proposed department would have responsibility in four areas:

* Protecting the nation’s borders and the security of the transportation network, primarily airplanes and ships.

* Preparing the nation for emergencies and directing the responses to them.

* Providing medical measures and other steps to counter the effects of attacks by chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

* Analyzing intelligence on potential threats and protecting vital elements of American life, including food and water, health services, transportation networks, communications, banking and energy.

As the White House was putting the finishing touches on its plan and notifying members of Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee was beginning a public inquiry into the government’s failures to make connections with intelligence reports that may have foretold the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Thursday’s announcement was widely seen as an effort to shift the public spotlight from those deficiencies to Bush’s proposal to correct them.

Bush acknowledged in his speech that before Sept. 11, “the suspicions and insights of some of our front-line agents did not get enough attention.”

“I do not believe anyone could have prevented the horror of Sept. 11,” he said. “Yet we now know that thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us, and this terrible knowledge requires us to act differently.”

He went so far as to tell FBI and CIA agents that if something raises their suspicions, “report it immediately.” And in a clear reference to the FBI’s failures to coordinate disparate reports of possible terrorist activity last summer, he told supervisors to treat such information in the future “with the seriousness it deserves.”

The proposed office would reach into disparate areas--taking, for example, the Secret Service from the Treasury Department, where it has been since 1865, and the animal and plant inspection service from the Agriculture Department--to create a single agency responsible for the broad sweep of security functions performed by the federal government.

Included would be the Border Patrol, now an agency in the Department of Justice, and the Coast Guard, from the Department of Transportation. The immigration component would be taken from Justice and also would assume some of the State Department’s visa work.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, now an independent body, also would become part of the department.

However, while the new department would depend heavily on intelligence from the FBI and the CIA, those agencies would remain largely untouched by the reorganization.

“This new department will review intelligence and law enforcement information from all agencies of government and produce a single daily picture of threats against our homeland,” Bush said in his 11-minute address. “Analysts will be responsible for imagining the worst and planning to counter it.”

He likened the measures to the sweep of those initiated by President Truman after World War II, when the focus was fighting the Cold War.

“Now we need similar dramatic reforms to secure our people at home,” Bush said. “We face an urgent need, and we must move quickly.”

The proposed department would have 169,000 employees--only the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are larger--and would have a budget of $37.4 billion.

The White House argued that, because existing agencies were being transferred to a new department but no new individual agencies were being created, the changes were unlikely to raise the budget and expand the government payroll.

“We’re not trying to uproot and destroy. We’re trying to build a new department to better protect the homeland,” said Gordon Johndroe, Ridge’s spokesman.

But Michael O’Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan public policy center in Washington, questioned whether simply shuffling agencies into one department would have any effect.

‘All About ... Money’

“We need to remember that nobody in Washington is actually protecting the country; this is all about making decisions and allocating money,” O’Hanlon said.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House said Bush opposed creating a separate department to handle such defense issues.

On Oct. 2, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was asked whether Bush was open to discussing with Congress the possibility of creating a department to handle homeland security.

“No,” he replied.

On Thursday, he said the president had opposed such a move at the time because the quickest way to meet the most pressing needs was to create an Office of Homeland Security in the White House rather than taking the time needed to win congressional approval to build a new department.

*

Times staff writers Edwin Chen, Vicki Kemper and Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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