Top Bush administration officials testified before Congress Thursday on the war on terrorism, and the plan to create a new homeland security department. On Capitol Hill, four officials - Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill - responded to lawmakers' concerns amid new congressional criticism of the administration's plans.
It was the first public hearing of a special House select panel formed to put together a single homeland security bill that, with a Senate version, would go to the president for signature.
Numerous committees sharing jurisdiction over various aspects of the new cabinet-level department, are speeding up action it is hoped would create the department by September 11, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
However, lawmakers have complained of what they call deficiencies in the administration's blueprint.
In a 10-point letter to President Bush, two key democrats, David Obey of Wisconsin and Henry Waxman of California, accuse the administration of rushing the plan through Congress, something they say could ultimately disrupt the war against terrorism.
The lawmakers also say the White House plan would give the new department "extraordinary powers to avoid meaningful congressional oversight." That view was echoed Thursday in the Senate by Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia. He said, "as long as the president's approval rating remains high, presumably propped up by the American public's understandable desire to support the war on terrorism, the more latitude the administration will be granted in restricting information about its executive actions under the guise of national security. This kind of culture can be extremely dangerous."
In his testimony Thursday, Attorney General John Ashcroft stressed that continuing terrorist threats to the United States underscore the importance of the cabinet-level department. "Al-Qaida maintains a hidden, but active, presence in the United States, waiting to strike again," he said. "Terrorists, posing as tourists, businessmen or students, seek also to penetrate our borders."
Both Mr. Ashcroft and Secretary of State Powell underlined the importance of information sharing in averting new terrorist attacks in what the attorney general calls a new culture of cooperation and coordination.
For his part, Mr. Powell repeated the administration's resolve to prevail in the war on terror. He said, "We will fight terrorist networks and all those who support these efforts to spread fear and mayhem around the world, and we will use every instrument of our national power, and we will not be cowed; we will not be made fearful."
Between now and the August congressional summer break, the House and Senate are trying to complete most legislative action necessary to create the homeland security department.
A special House-Senate intelligence committee will also be holding more hearings as part of its investigation into intelligence failures before the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The entire House of Representatives late Thursday received a classified closed-door briefing from administration officials on the latest developments in the war on terrorism.