Ridge sworn in as homeland security chief

Office will close gaps in anti-terror efforts, former Pa. governor says

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 09, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's new director of homeland security tried to reassure a jittery nation yesterday that the government would work to close any gaps in its domestic anti-terror efforts.

Tom Ridge, until last week the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, said his task would be to "detect, prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to and recover from terrorist attacks."

"An extraordinary mission," he said, "but we will carry it out."

Ridge, 56, was sworn in to his new job at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House with his wife and two children by his side.

He said Americans should find comfort knowing that millions at all levels of government are working to ensure the nation's safety. But, he added, "There may be gaps in the system." He said he hoped to identify and close those gaps while protecting the liberties of the American people.

To critics who have cautioned that, without budgetary authority from Congress, Ridge will do little more than provoke turf wars among his government counterparts, he made a plea.

"We must open lines of communication and support like never before," he said. "The only turf we should be worried about protecting is the turf we stand on."

Ridge, who will have a West Wing office in the White House not far from President Bush's, is charged with coordinating the anti-terrorism activities of 46 federal agencies.

Bush said he had asked Ridge, a longtime political ally of his family, to design a comprehensive, coordinated national strategy that would include strengthening intelligence gathering, transportation systems, food and water systems and infrastructure.

"We face a united, determined enemy," Bush said. "We must have a united and determined response. The homeland security office has a series of specific goals and will have my authority to meet them."

To an audience that included Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI director Robert S. Mueller III and other Cabinet members, as well as state and local officials, Bush said the new office would have "the full attention and complete support of the very highest levels of our government."

The administration will continue to fortify its homeland security team today with the expected appointment of Richard A. Clarke, the White House counter-terrorism coordinator for the past eight years, as cyberspace security adviser. And retired Gen. Wayne Downing, the first chief of the Army's Special Operations Command, is expected to be named director for combating terrorism.

Both posts will be part of the National Security Council.

A number of lawmakers and critics have questioned whether Ridge will have enough influence and authority - especially budgetary authority - to move counterterrorism efforts forward.

Several members of Congress have crafted measures that would let the homeland security office control the way the federal government spends money to fight terrorism.

Under an executive order signed by Bush yesterday, the new office lacks such power. Instead, Bush allows Ridge only to review budgets and advise other top administration officials. He cannot make final funding decisions or resolve conflicts over spending.

Such limited authority has been compared to that of White House "czars" in previous administrations, who have had little success tackling such issues as energy, education and drugs.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Ridge would play a "central and important role" - attending Cabinet meetings and national security briefings and enjoying easy access to the president.

He predicted that Ridge would be more successful than others have been at unifying competing interests and agencies because, "Our nation is at war. Wartime has the ability to bring people ... together in a way that peacetime does not."

With the government warning that further terrorist acts are possible, especially in light of U.S.-led military attacks against Afghanistan, the nation has tightened security from shore to shore, with law enforcement agencies, business and utilities operating at high levels of alert.

Adding to the sense of anxiety, the FBI is investigating whether a second case of anthrax infection detected in Florida could be the result of bioterrorism.

Bush said he knew many Americans have fears. "We've learned that America is not immune from attack," he said. "We've seen that evil is real. It's hard for us to comprehend the mentality of people that would destroy innocent folks the way they have. Yet America is equal to this challenge. They've roused a mighty giant."

Ridge, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former congressman, was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Plans for Vice President Dick Cheney to give Ridge the oath of office were scrapped so that Cheney could remain apart from Bush at an undisclosed location.

From his new office, Ridge will direct a staff of 12, with 100 additional government aides on loan to him from other agencies. And he will be a member of a new Homeland Security Council, chaired by the president, that will include the vice president, Cabinet secretaries and other senior officials.

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