Ridge faces domestic challenge as he takes counter-terror post

Budget, turf problems could make job `largest deck chair on Titanic'

War On Terrorism

Homeland Security

October 08, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When Tom Ridge opens the White House Office of Homeland Security today, one day after the U.S. military strike that has likely raised the nation's need for protection to new heights, he will have a staff of roughly 100 aides on loan from a variety of agencies and departments. He will have Cabinet-level status, a desk in the West Wing and, perhaps most important, the ear of a president whose family he has known for 20 years.

But it's far from clear whether the former Pennsylvania governor will command other tools that many national security analysts and lawmakers say would be indispensable to managing the nation's protection of itself: some control over the budgets of dozens of government shops that deal with counter-terrorism and authority over other agency and department heads in matters related to the country's security.

Without such powers, many analysts say, the new office could become little more than a symbolic attempt to confront the 21st-cen- tury threat that, as last month's deadly events demonstrated, has confounded the nation.

"Either Governor Ridge gets that or Governor Ridge might as well go home," says Anthony H. Cordesman, a terrorism specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Without influence over long-term planning and budgeting and the authority to guide the counter-terrorism activities of agencies, Ridge, a Republican who resigned as governor Friday, becomes merely "the largest deck chair on the Titanic," Cordesman says.

In announcing the military action yesterday, Bush acknowledged the sense of unease many Americans feel, an uncertainty he hopes the establishment of Ridge's office will go a long way toward calming.

"I know many Americans feel fear today," Bush said. "And our government is taking strong precautions: Our law enforcement and intelligence agencies are working aggressively around America, around the world and around the clock; at my request many governors have activated the National Guard to strengthen airport security; we have called up reserves to reinforce our military capability and strengthen the protection of our homeland."

So far, the administration has described Ridge's job as mainly one of coordination, with his degree of authority and budget control vague.

"He'll have a lot of clout," said Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff. "This leader will be a real leader for homeland security."

Ridge told reporters last week: "There are so many laws and regulations that have to be sorted through to identify specifically what I can and cannot do in this position. But what I do know is this: The president has said, `You'll have the authority and the personnel that you need to get the job done that I have asked you to do.'"

Ridge's mission is to coordinate the disparate counter-terrorism programs spread among 46 federal agencies, many of which were created after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway that same year.

For instance, the Department of Health and Human Services, among many other anti-terrorism activities, works on stockpiling vaccines and antibiotics to respond to biological or chemical attacks. The Transportation Department oversees a range of activities, from airport security to the Coast Guard's seaborne patrols. Border security is the domain of the Justice, Treasury and Transportation departments. The Agriculture Department works to prevent attacks on the food supply.

Together, such programs are expected to cost $13 billion next year, a total that will likely increase in the aftermath of last month's terrorist attacks and as the threat of new acts of terrorism in retaliation for U.S. military action looms.

"Ridge has to set up a capacity to plan for an end-to-end system, from detection, deterrence and prevention to, at the end, retaliation and repair," says Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "He's got to think about what we need at each step."

Ridge is also to run a new Homeland Security Council that will include several Cabinet secretaries and the directors of the FBI and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The administration has portrayed Ridge's position as being the domestic equivalent of the national security adviser, a post created in the early days of the Cold War to coordinate national defense, diplomacy and intelligence for the president.

Much as Condoleezza Rice derives a large part of her influence as Bush's national security adviser from her close relationship with the president, Ridge's reputation as a trusted Bush friend will count for a great deal, security analysts say.

And a number of national security advisers, though lacking budget control and direct authority over other agencies, emerged as major forces within the administrations they served. Henry A. Kissinger, for example, was the major foreign policy voice of the Nixon administration.

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