Have you seen Tom Ridge?

January 21, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Inasmuch as U.S. intelligence and military efforts haven't been able to find Osama bin Laden, maybe they should switch to a search for Tom Ridge.

It's true that there have been some recent sightings of President Bush's director of homeland security. It's been reported, for example, that he has met with officials of the National Governors Association and the National League of Cities to reassure them that he is aware of the federal financial help they need for the new security tasks placed on them in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mr. Ridge's low profile is a striking contrast to the days and weeks after the president's 21-gun-salute announcement of the appointment of his friend and former gubernatorial colleague nine days after the attacks. For awhile thereafter, Mr. Ridge was almost as visible on television as Larry King.

His omnipresence fanned speculation that Mr. Bush had appointed him at least in part to provide public exposure that could raise his stock as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2004, in the event Dick Cheney for some reason could not be on the Republican ticket.

But Mr. Ridge's debut on the national stage was somewhat marred by an appearance of confusion that sometimes bordered on bewilderment, vague terrorism alerts and uncertainty about the origins and possible linkage between the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent anthrax mailings. He eventually became much less in evidence as he grappled with the challenges of trying to coordinate some 46 federal agencies with responsibilities in one or another aspect of homeland security.

One reason could be an internal Ridge proposal to create a new agency in which all aspects of border security, now residing in the Coast Guard, the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service would be consolidated. It has run into stiff resistance from Cabinet secretaries now overseeing those functions.

A similar consolidation has been proposed by several members of Congress of both parties, including Republican Rep. William Thornberry of Texas, who had been advancing the idea of a separate border agency for five months before the terrorist attacks. Mr. Thornberry would pull the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the new entity along with the Border Patrol, Customs and the Coast Guard.

Mr. Thornberry's initiative follows the framework of the pre-attack report predicting domestic terrorism that was co-authored by two former senators, Republican Warren Rudman and Democrat Gary Hart. The latter, in a long interview in the current Playboy magazine, reiterated the report's call for such a consolidation.

In a subsequent telephone interview, Mr. Hart repeated his concern that having Mr. Ridge report directly to the president without budgetary authority over security functions housed elsewhere invites the resistance from agency heads he is encountering. The arrangement, he said, is unworkable if Mr. Ridge "bumps up against a wall of resistance" and "has to walk into the Oval Office five times a day" to complain that he can't get the cooperation he needs.

Mr. Hart and Mr. Rudman presented their prescient report on domestic terrorism last year to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but efforts to meet with Mr. Ridge after his appointment, Mr. Hart said, never worked out.

Mr. Thornberry says the whole matter of Mr. Ridge's authority "is still a struggle within the administration" and that anyone looking at the situation can see that "border security is a mess." But, he adds, "anytime you're taking money and power away and giving it to somebody else" you're going to have a fight, and Mr. Ridge has "got to stand and fight" for the consolidation.

In the meantime, he says, it's a good thing Mr. Ridge is not as visible as before. He's better off, Mr. Thornberry says, fighting inside than "holding press conferences and holding hands on Capitol Hill."

The question now is whether the legislative proposals for consolidation by Mr. Thornberry and others will pressure Mr. Bush to lean on his department and agency subordinates to be more cooperative with Mr. Ridge. Meanwhile, the man with the homeland security portfolio but not the budgetary authority seems to be casting a shadow in Washington a good deal smaller than it was when he was named the homeland security honcho four months ago.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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