`Homeland' security post not new idea

House had asked for creation of top-level coordinating council

Terrorism Strikes America

Presidents Bush Speaks

September 21, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When President Bush announced the creation of a new Office of Homeland Security and named Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to direct it last night, he was not rolling out a fresh idea.

The plan, in the works for some time, took on disturbing new importance when the United States was attacked Sept. 11.

The House unanimously passed legislation last year calling for a high-level coordinating council at the White House to deal with a huge terrorist attack. The bill was opposed by the Clinton administration; it died in the Senate.

Bush took up the issue in May, directing Vice President Dick Cheney to study the issue of terrorism. But this administration, like the previous White House, declined at the time to heed the call from many in Congress to establish a new office to prevent, and potentially respond to, a terrorist attack.

Given unimaginable urgency, Bush announced such an office last night.

"Today, dozens of federal departments and agencies, as well as state and local governments, have responsibilities affecting homeland security," Bush said. "These efforts must be coordinated at the highest level."

Ridge, a two-term Republican who is a combat veteran of Vietnam, was due to leave office in January 2003. He will resign at noon Oct. 5 and transfer power to Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker, said Tim Reeves, Ridge's communications director.

White House aides said it was unlikely Ridge would require congressional confirmation, since the White House considered the new post a Cabinet-level position - such as the drug czar - but was not creating a new Cabinet-level department.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters last night said that Cheney, along with a small group of advisers, had begun work in May, when Bush directed them to study counter-terrorism. But they had not gone much further than examining the reports from various commissions dealing with the issue.

"Clearly, the events in New York and Washington on Sept. 11 accelerated, and emphasized, the need to make sure we've got our act together as an administration, as a federal government, as a nation," the official said. "But that need existed before Sept. 11."

The senior official said that the new office will serve as a "focal point" for about 40 federal agencies that have a hand in counter-terrorism. The office will coordinate preparedness efforts and take a lead in "hardening" the United States as a potential target.

That could involve anything from tightening airline security to examining whether terrorists are able to infiltrate the nation's distribution of food or electricity.

"These measures are essential," Bush said last night. "The only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows."

The administration is comparing Ridge's new post to a domestic equivalent of the national security adviser. Just as the national security adviser works with a committee that draws resources from the departments of state and defense, the new homeland security committee will include representatives from departments such as justice and health and human services, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The director of homeland security would also be responsible for helping the nation "cope" with a terrorist attack, the senior official said. That suggests that Ridge will attain instant prominence in dealing with the current crisis.

"He'll be sitting at the right hand of the president," said the senior official.

One task of the new office of homeland security is expected to be carrying out a thorough review of the nation's domestic intelligence capabilities.

The administration official said Ridge, for example, will likely be examining whether the FBI's intelligence-gathering needs to be transformed, to make it closer to resembling that of the CIA, when probing potential terrorist threats.

Ridge's office is also expected to recommend ways for the Pentagon to increase its role in protecting America from a terrorist assault.

In addition to Ridge's new post, the Bush administration plans to create a position it is calling national director and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism.

The post will fall within the framework of the National Security Council, and the person who fills it will help coordinate counter-terrorism efforts mostly at the Pentagon and State Department.

In creating Ridge's post last night, Bush seemed to be acknowledging that his administration's actions to fight terrorism so far were not enough.

"Our nation has been put on notice," Bush said last night. "We are not immune from attack."

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