President Bush has established a cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security to coordinate anti-terrorist efforts in the United States. To run it, he has named a close friend, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. Mr. Ridge will have a broad mandate to prevent and respond to terrorist activities.
Several months ago, two separate independent panels called for creation of a top-level U.S. office to combat terrorism. The reports were of interest in national security circles but the recommendations appeared to make little mark on U-S policymakers.
The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington changed that. "Our nation has been put on notice. We're not immune from attack," he said.
President Bush told Congress Thursday night that a new chief of Homeland Security reporting directly to him would coordinate dozens of national, state, and local agencies that have responsibilities affecting homeland security. "He will lead, oversee, and coordinate a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard our country against terrorism and respond to any attacks that may come," Mr. Bush said.
So far, those words are the new office's only charter, and a lot of work must follow to put flesh on its bones.
The two independent panels that recommended the position had different bureaucratic visions for it.
The U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century called for it to become a new Cabinet department taking over some functions from other departments. As examples, the commission's co-chair, former Senator Gary Hart, told a Senate committee that Customs and the Coast Guard would move from the Treasury Department and the border patrol from the Immigration Service. "Now these are frontline defense organizations. If we are in fact in a war, the nature and function of these agencies has changed. So the reason why they are where they are frankly makes very little sense any more," he said.
But the National Advisory Panel on Terrorism saw it differently. Its head, Virginia Governor James Gilmore, says the Homeland Defense chief should be strictly an inter-agency coordinator. "It's fairly fruitless to move agencies. They are doing other things, too, besides terrorism. Aside from that, there are so many that it requires not movement or restructure, but coordination," he said.
This is the model President Bush has adopted. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the new Homeland Defense office will not replace existing agencies. He compares its chief to the president's National Security Advisor, who coordinates the work of defense, diplomatic, and intelligence agencies.
However constituted, the new Homeland Defense office will focus on preventing terrorist attacks and developing plans to protect the nation's infrastructure. Experts on terrorism, national security, and civil defense say it must be powerful enough to command resources and direct activities.
Physicist Bron Cikotas is a board member at the American Civil Defense Association, a private group promoting disaster preparation. "I think what's very important is to give it a very clear authority to work across agencies to the point where they can do what other agencies by themselves cannot do in addressing the threat that we have today," he said.
But an anti-terrorist effort through a Homeland Defense office is not enough, according to former U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer. The man who was an ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism in the 1980s told the Senate committee it is just as important to keep the effort from waning.
"One of the problems this country has had in coming up with a coherent counterterrorist policy is attention to terrorism has been very episodic. It doesn't mean we need hysteria. But we need a sustained and balanced attention to this problem that is going to outlive the immediate emotions of this week," he said.
Senator Joseph Lieberman, who chaired the Senate hearing, says Congress will probably have to pass laws to give the Homeland Defense office a budget and enforcement powers.