Ridge handed large, nebulous mandate

Structure, duties, budget for Homeland Security office still unclear

`He has to set the priorities'

Terrorism Strikes America

September 23, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The words "homeland security" call to mind well-intentioned if simplistic efforts of the past: World War II-era women scanning the skies with binoculars for enemy aircraft, schoolchildren ducking under their desks for nuclear bomb drills during the Cold War.

But the Office of Homeland Security that President Bush created last week and named Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to head will operate in a different landscape, one in which the war has no defined borders and the enemy is vaporously elusive - terrorists with no fixed address or modus operandi.

"The threat can be anything from a bomb explosion to a biological weapon," said Anthony H. Cordesman, who heads a homeland defense research project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "We have to be able to respond to types of threats we've never seen before."

Homeland security might have entered the lexicon with Bush's speech Thursday night, but it has been the consuming interest of think tanks like CSIS and several government commissions for a few years. They regularly issued reports, mostly to a collective yawn, until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 put homeland security at the center of national discourse.

"All of a sudden, it's got legs," said Randy Larsen, director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security, who has advised the White House on the subject. "We've been protected by two oceans and two friendly neighbors, and we've felt very secure. But now, the homeland is threatened, the time has come."

Defining what is meant by security in an insecure world is a task in itself. But homeland security essentially refers to an effort to coordinate the responses to an attack on U.S. soil - from the intelligence agencies that could alert a locality to potential trouble, to emergency teams that would provide immediate assistance, to the medical personnel that would care for the victims.

All of this is a monumental task - by some estimates, as many as 50 agencies would own a piece of the response to an attack on the United States. That is why many believe true homeland security requires more than the appointment of a so-called czar.

"So far, the federal government's efforts to have a czar has done just about as well as Russia's efforts," Cordesman said. "If you don't control the budget ... having the title is meaningless. We don't know what authority he will have.

"What people have to understand is the question is not who is in charge, it's what they're in charge of."

`Significant' resources

The Bush administration has not yet offered details on how the Office of Homeland Security would operate. Neither has it quantified the size of its staff and budget, beyond the vague description of "significant." Its operating costs would be covered by the White House budget.

Money is the big question.

"If he doesn't have budgetary authority, it's just jawboning," said Barry M. Blechman, president of DFI International, a Washington firm that does defense contracting work and corporate consulting. "There are a lot of executive-level positions created that are just symbols. Without budgetary authority, the bureaucracy will just get him."

Ridge will likely be flooded with advice as he begins his work. Numerous groups have spent years developing competing visions of how homeland security efforts should be structured. A number of those groups found an audience Friday before the Senate Government Operations Committee.

Among those testifying were two former senators - Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat, and Warren B. Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican - who were chairmen of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century created by President Bill Clinton. In February, the commission recommended the creation of a federal homeland security agency - to little interest or action.

Additionally, Gov. James S. Gilmore III of Virginia testified about his panel on domestic re sponse to terrorism, which has been advising Vice President Dick Cheney. One member of the Gilmore Commission, as it is known, was Raymond Downey, special operations commander for the New York Fire Department, who was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

"You were ahead of your time, ahead of the rest of the nation's time, unfortunately," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. "But it's not too late now to put into effect the recommendations that you've made to deal with the new realities that we face."

Hart highlighted what many believe is the biggest challenge in homeland security - coordinating the myriad agencies with multiple agendas that could be called to the defense of the country after a terrorist attack. Such an effort requires a broader approach than Bush has proposed, he said.

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