Homeland security director learning job under spotlight

Little staff or expertise have led to rocky start for former Pa. governor

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 30, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush formally convened his Homeland Security Council for the first time yesterday, shining a spotlight on what he calls the "war at home" and on the longtime political ally who has been struggling to find his footing as its leader.

As director of homeland security, Tom Ridge is charged with developing a strategy for protecting the country against a range of terrorist threats.

But in the three weeks that the former Pennsylvania governor has been officially on the job - with little staff and little expertise in the area of bioterrorism that is rocking the country - he's also had to devise a strategy for coordinating the sometimes conflicting information coming from all corners of the government.

After staying conspicuously in the shadows at the start of the anthrax scare, Ridge has been cast as the public face of the administration on terrorist threats. He's been appearing on morning TV talk shows, speaking to conferences of local officials and is beginning a routine of holding news briefings at least three times a week.

Yesterday - flanked by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, a scientist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and officials from the Pentagon and Postal Service - Ridge told a news conference that he planned to continue bringing in specialists to answer those questions that he can't.

"I'm learning," he said as he deferred to the CDC official on a question about antibiotics to treat anthrax.

Indeed, even as he faces a mammoth task - trying to protect the nation from what he has called a "shadow enemy" that is "determined to murder innocent people" - Ridge is in the earliest stages of getting his office up and running.

Lots of reading, little sleep

In meetings with lawmakers last week, he held up an organizational chart showing the more than 100 pieces of the anti-terrorism bureaucracy under his purview as evidence of the complexity of his task. He is said to be reading as much as he can pertaining to anti-terrorism and getting by on as little as three hours of sleep.

Some members of his personal staff of about 12, such as a newly appointed communications director, have not even started yet.

Just yesterday, the White House named six members of Ridge's team, including his deputy director, Adm. Steve Abbot, executive director of Vice President Dick Cheney's review of national preparedness; and his deputy assistant, Mark A. Holman, a Washington lawyer and longtime chief of staff to Ridge.

In creating the Office of Homeland Security, Bush said that nearly 100 employees from other agencies and departments would be on loan to Ridge. Those familiar with the operation say Ridge has asked to have those employees detailed to him for six months, with a plan to submit an outline to the president for a comprehensive national strategy by July.

Though many officials say they are granting Ridge a grace period, some members of Congress have noted with disappointment that even their calls to his assistants have gone unanswered.

"It's difficult to set up an operation and do the job at the same time," said Susan Neely, who is to begin next week as Ridge's communications director.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who recently asked the former governor if he would be an advocate for mayors in the White House, said he has received no assurances yet.

"They're not really doing much of anything right now - it's so early," O'Malley said of Ridge's office. "But a lot of us hold out a great deal of hope for him. He wants to do what the country needs him to do."

Ridge's first weeks on the job, working in a cramped office down the hall from the president, have been rocky at best.

He was criticized for initially playing down the danger posed by the anthrax contained in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Later, Ridge was forced to acknowledge that the anthrax in the Daschle letter was highly potent and deadly.

And the administration as a whole was widely criticized for its response in protecting postal workers, two of whom died from the disease. In contrast, Capitol Hill employees got quick attention.

Ridge declined to accept personal responsibility for the failure to alert and treat postal workers - a lapse that critics said resulted from poor communication between the FBI and public health agencies.

But on Wednesday night, Ridge called a meeting at the White House that brought together Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Thompson, scientists and health officials to unify the government's message, to insist on greater communication between the FBI and health officials, and to assert his authority.

`Single worst week'

Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the failure to immediately treat the postal workers at risk amounted to the "single worst week" in the performance of the government since the attacks Sept. 11.

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