President Bush and members of Congress are pledging to work together to create a new Cabinet agency responsible for protecting the United States from terrorists. But the hard part is just beginning.
If approved by Congress, the Department of Homeland Security would be one of the largest agencies in the federal government.
The new department would inherit about 170,000 employees and a budget of $37 billion, taken from more than 100 government organizations that already have some responsibility in the homeland security area.
After months of resisting the idea, the president formally proposed consolidating homeland security responsibilities under one Cabinet-level agency in a nationally televised speech late Thursday. "Employees of this new agency will come to work every morning knowing their most important job is to protect their fellow citizens," he said.
The new department will be responsible for border and transportation security and coordinating the government's response to national emergencies. It would also develop technology to prevent chemical, biological and nuclear attacks and serve as a central clearinghouse for intelligence analysis.
The man likely to head the new department is the president's Director of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge. He spoke on NBC's Today program. "And I think it is a very appropriate realignment and reorganization of the federal government in order to deal with a new threat and the enduring vulnerability that we are going to have for the foreseeable future in this country," he said. "I do think that we need that reorganization of the government in order to reduce the threat to our way of life and to our citizens."
Opposition Democrats in Congress have been calling for the establishment of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security for months. Many of them were quick to offer support to the president even though the White House chose not to consult with them in advance of the surprise announcement.
Formal unveiling of the proposal came as Congress continued hearings into how and why U.S. intelligence agencies ignored tips and warnings of terrorist activity in the months before September 11.
Political analysts say it was important that the president do something to reassure the public that his administration is prepared to deal with the ongoing terrorist threat.
David Lightman is Washington Bureau Chief for the Hartford Courant newspaper and a guest on this week's 'Issues in the News' program here on VOA. "And you began to get from people concern about this," he said. "Not criticisms of the president himself, but 'gee, does the administration, do the Republicans really know what they are doing?' He had to seize the political initiative on this and he did."
Now comes the difficult task of implementing the plan. Even if Congress approves the new department by the end of this year, as the president wants, experts warn it could take years for the new agency to function smoothly.
David Lightman of the Hartford Courant said "however, you've got to break years, decades, of bureaucratic and congressional cultures and that is going to be rough. You can't just move all the pieces together and assume it is going to create the perfect jigsaw puzzle. It is not going to happen that way."
Steve Sloan is a noted authority on terrorism at the University of Oklahoma. He said the new agency will create new challenges for state and local agencies responsible for counter-terrorism. "And the issue of coordinating with them, which is already complicated, may be further complicated by a new department. So this is going to raise serious bureaucratic and operational problems in terms of where we will be heading in the quote "war on terrorism," he said.
The new Cabinet department also means a significant reshuffling of congressional committees. Eighty-eight committees and subcommittees in Congress currently have some jurisdiction over homeland security, setting the stage for some major power struggles among senior members of the House and Senate.