Boondoggled

September 23, 2002

AT THE RISK of sounding heretical, it's time to pull the plug on the plan to create a Department of Homeland Security. Better yet, drive a stake through its heart.

Months of debate have made clear that this bureaucratic boondoggle offers no promise of making the homeland more secure. Worse, it takes the focus off the need for tighter oversight of the nation's security systems.

President Bush offered the most sweeping government reorganization in a half-century largely as a political and public relations tactic. He was trying to counter Senate Democrats who were advancing similar legislation of their own.

He timed the unveiling of his plan to drown out the testimony of FBI Agent Coleen M. Rowley, who was blowing the whistle on the security failures of her hidebound agency that blinded it to clues of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Shifting 22 federal agencies and 170,000 workers into a new department will cost billions but will do nothing to solve the problems Agent Rowley addressed. What's needed is greater sharing, and coordination and synthesis of the security information collected by the myriad agencies.

But this new department would not even include the FBI and the CIA, which are the two premier intelligence gatherers. Nor is there any guarantee that greater sharing would take place between them if they were together.

The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are already grouped together in the Justice Department, and they don't have a system for streamlined communications. As Agent Rowley told Congress, the various offices of the FBI didn't even share information with each other.

For the nation's security apparatus to become more efficient, the psychology and culture of those competitive and turf-protective agencies must change. Moving boxes around on an organizational chart and creating cement edifices to house them will do nothing but create more pork-barrel booty for lawmakers eager for new facilities in their home states.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat who opposes creation of the department, contends the homeland security oversight job could be done by upgrading the White House adviser post now held by Tom Ridge. The main reason Senate Democrats starting pushing the idea of a new department was their frustration with Mr. Ridge's refusal to submit to their questioning on the grounds that he was a confidential presidential aide.

Few lawmakers have openly opposed this sacred cow. The proposal whisked through the House in a matter of hours before the summer recess. It is bogged down in the Senate largely because of a partisan dispute over worker rules.

Mr. Bush is taking advantage of the opportunity to mow down longstanding worker rights and protections, saying he needs greater flexibility to hire, fire and move workers around.

That alone is a good reason to deep-six this plan. Civil service laws may well need some updating to attract and retain a quality work force. But the changes should be carefully applied throughout the government to avoid creating a class system in which workers at some agencies are treated better than those at others.

This Congress will leave much unfinished business. With any luck, that will include this pointless bureaucratic reshuffling.

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